Tech companies join call for govt to back away from encryption crackdown

Wickr, Twilio, ThoughtWorks and among signatories of open letter to government

A group of digital rights organisations, privacy activists and tech companies has called for the government to refrain from legislation that could potentially weaken access to encrypted communications services.

An open letter circulated by Access Now calls on the government to “not to pursue legislation that would undermine tools, policies, and technologies critical to protecting individual rights, safeguarding the economy, and providing security both in Australia and around the world”.

Tech companies Wickr, Twilio, ThoughtWorks and are among the letter’s signatories, alongside a number of Australian organisations including the Australian Privacy Foundation, CyrptoAustralia, Digital Rights Watch, Electronic Frontiers Australia, Future Wise, Internet Australia and Linux Australia.

In total, some 76 organisations and individuals have signed the letter.

“We must keep the dialogue open on how we protect our personal, business, and government data against hacking threats which are growing more sophisticated, scalable, and cheap,” said Wickr CEO Joel Wallenstrom.

Wickr is an encrypted communications service whose users have included Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“It is no time to limit Australia’s options in securing its economy, critical infrastructure, and business communications,” Wallenstrom said. “It is unrealistic to expect effective law enforcement when our digital systems become porous and vulnerable due to weakened encryption.”

The government has committed to introducing legislation that will help law enforcement and national security agencies access encrypted communications.

Although the government has claimed the proposed legislation is in “an advanced stage of drafting”, details of how it will work are yet to be released.

The government has said the legislation will require companies to take “reasonable steps” to assist law enforcement agencies that require access to encrypted communications. What will constitute “reasonable steps”, particularly in the case of end-to-end encrypted services, is yet to be revealed.

The open letter — sent to Attorney-General Christian Porter, minister for law enforcement and cyber security Angus Taylor, Senate president Senator Scott Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives Tony Smith and shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus — argues that “all known methods of bypassing, altering, or watering down security tools or technologies to provide law enforcement access [to encrypted communications] have been shown to carry severe risk”.

“We strongly urge the government to commit to not only supporting, but investing in the development and use of encryption and other security tools and technologies that protect users and systems,” the letter states.

“We also urge you to advance other structures that will help secure Australia’s digital future, such as the establishment of a vulnerabilities disclosure process and protection for security research.”

The letter calls for a “dialogue on education and resources for law and policy makers, as well as law enforcement officials, to help determine what courses of action are available to gain access to evidence in a timely manner”.

Access Now has established an online petition that calls on MPs to support strong encryption.

The full text of the letter is available online (PDF). 

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