Government, Labor compromise on encryption bill

Legislation expected to be passed this week

The government says it is confident that a version of a bill intended to help police and national security agencies intercept and access encrypted communications will be passed by the end of the week.

Attorney-general Christian Porter said that the government had reached agreement with Labor to pass an amended version of the bill.

The government last week knocked back a proposal by Dreyfus to pass interim legislation while the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) continued its scrutiny of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018.

The Labor MP first raised the prospect of an interim bill during a PJCIS hearing, raising the idea of potentially limiting the use of the powers in the bill to counter-terrorism investigations by national security agencies.

Porter said that the Coalition and Labor had agreed to not excise state police agencies from the bill, and that the offences the bill will apply to will remain “suitably broad” and not just be confined to terrorism and child sex offences. The powers will be able to be employed for investigations of “serious offences” including serious drug, gun and sex offences, the attorney-general said.

Porter said the amended bill would include oversight that is “reasonable and timely”. The government would also include in the bill a definition of “systemic weakness”: The bill bans the attorney-general from ordering a company to implement a “systemic weakness” but exactly what that means in practice is unclear.

Porter said the bill would be amended to establish a panel comprising an expert and a retired judge that will report to the attorney-general on whether a measure would constitute a “systemic weakness” if there is a dispute with a tech company over the issue.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said in a statement that it “appears the government will agree to proposals by Labor that will ensure there is better oversight and limitation of the powers in this bill, and better safeguards against potential unintended consequences”.

The PJCIS will continue to examine the bill, with the shadow AG saying that the ongoing inquiry will allow “outstanding concerns to be worked on and further amendments introduced in the new year if necessary.”

Dreyfus attacked what he described as “extraordinary interference” with the PJCIS by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and home Affairs minister Peter Dutton.

“Let me be clear – this bill is far from perfect and there are likely to be significant outstanding issues,” Dreyfus’ statement said. “But this compromise will deliver security and enforcement agencies the powers they say they need over the Christmas period, and ensure adequate oversight and safeguards to prevent unintended consequences while ongoing work continues – just as Labor proposed.”

Major business groups, the journalists’ union, and the Law Council of Australia have expressed alarm at the government’s attempt to rush through the encryption bill.

Opponents of the bill have argued it will undermine the security of popular online services.

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