Encryption crackdown: Brandis to meet with Apple

The attorney-general has said he will meet with the iPhone-maker this week

Attorney-General George Brandis will this week meet with Apple to discuss the federal government’s move to boost the ability of law enforcement agencies to intercept encrypted communications.

The government last week announced it would introduced legislation to compel Internet companies and providers of encrypted communications services to cooperate with law enforcement and national security agencies.

Apple was previously at the centre of a US legal stoush after the FBI sought to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

On Friday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the government’s legislation will require tech companies to “provide assistance to the police to enable them to have access to the information pursuant to a warrant”.

Turnbull was coy when quizzed on the implications for end-to-end encrypted services where the provider is currently not in a position to decrypt the contents of a communication between two parties. The government has hinted that it will be up to service providers to figure out how they can comply with the new regime.

The government has denied that it wants to force companies to introduce backdoors into encrypted communications systems, undermining their security, but it has done so by using an extremely narrow definition of “backdoor” (a backdoor “is typically a flaw in a software program that perhaps the... developer of the software program is not aware of and that somebody who knows about it can exploit,” Turnbull said last week)

In response to a question on the reaction of tech companies to the government’s announcement, Brandis yesterday told Sky News’ Sunday Agenda that it’s “early days” and he didn’t want to “pre-empt any discussions that the government is having.”

“I’m, for example, seeing Apple this coming week and I want these discussions to be as constructive and as cooperative as they can possibly be.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been a vocal opponent of moves to weaken encryption, rejecting the idea that the company’s customers “should have to make tradeoffs between privacy and security”.

Brandis said that the government’s legislation will be based on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, which was introduced last year. That allows law enforcement agencies to issue a Technical Capability Notice to tech company’s requiring them to assist in accessing a communication.

“Now, the point I’m at pains to make is that this is not a new kind of legal obligation,” Brandis said. “All we are doing is trying to make sure the law stays abreast of developments in technology.

“There are already in Australian law, under the Telecommunications Act and under the Crimes Act, obligations to provide assistance, but they are dated. They pre-date the ubiquity of encryption. They predate messaging apps. They predate social media.

“So for example, the provision in the Telecommunications Act mandating cooperation in certain circumstances applies to carriage service providers but it doesn’t apply to device makers. What we are doing is we are bringing existing, well established, legal obligations and principles up to date to ensure that they are abreast of modern technology.”

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