Law Council, journos, software industry urge caution on encryption bill

Backlash against government attempt to ram through legislation

An attempt by the government to push through major national security legislation has roused a chorus of concern, with groups representing lawyers, journalists and software companies calling on the Canberra to rethink its rush.

The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 would give police and security agencies new powers to force tech companies to cooperate with investigations.

It would also allow the government to order a company that provides a communications service to build new capabilities designed to assist with investigations.

The government says the legislation is necessary to counter the increased use of encrypted communications by criminals and terrorists. However, critics have argued that it could undermine the security of major online services.

Last week, the inquiry also heard that local jobs in the security sector could be hit if the bill passes in its current form.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and home affairs minister Peter Dutton have called for a quick wrap-up of the inquiry into the bill. Following a number of hearings by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), Labor said it would support an interim bill that conferred some of the proposed powers on intelligence agencies while the inquiry continued.

The government rejected the proposal.

The Law Council of Australia today urged the government to make sure there was adequate time for the bill to be scrutinised.

“The Law Council supports aspects of this bill to give intelligence agencies additional powers to help keep us safe,” said the council’s president, Arthur Moses SC.

“However, this unprecedented bill is far too complex to be rammed through Parliament in its entirety in just four days.

“Parliament must proceed carefully to ensure we get it right. Rushed law can make bad law.

“Failing to properly scrutinise this bill risks unintended consequences which may impact on the privacy and rights of law-abiding Australian citizens, the media and corporate sector.”

Moses said he was concerned that the government had attacked critics of the bill.

He said that it was “completely inappropriate for any politician to accuse anyone of putting at risk national security because they are raising legitimate concerns about legislation”.

The union representing journalists, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, said that it was concerned about the bill’s lack of judicial oversight and that the legislation might undermine public interest reporting.

“Journalists increasingly rely on encrypted communications to protect the identity of confidential sources,” said MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy. “Offering this protection is vital. It gives whistleblowers the confidence to come forward with public interest concerns.

“In the absence of that confidence many important stories will never come to light.”

“The risk in ramming through complex legislation with undue haste is that it will actually make us less safe and trample on the very democratic freedoms we are seeking to protect,” Murphy said.

The tech sector has also been expressed concerns about the legislation. This morning BSA | The Software Alliance released a statement calling on the PJCIS inquiry  to “run its proper course”.

“During the hearings to date, cybersecurity experts, industry, and civil society have all identified numerous concerns and adverse consequences that would result from the current draft of the bill,” BSA said.

“BSA believes that the bill, in its current form, would compromise data privacy and security of individuals and businesses, impact public trust in encryption and encryption software, and introduce risk to the integrity of the global digital economy.”

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