Labor calls for encryption caution

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal opposition has urged for caution and proper consultation over the government’s contentious encryption bill.

This led Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to accuse Labor of “playing games” and being on the side of Silicon Valley tech giants rather than the Australian people.

In a speech to the CommsDay Melbourne Congress last week, shadow communications Michelle Rowland further signalled that the Opposition may break from the traditional bipartisanship on anything remotely considered relating to national security in favour of more consultation and amendments.

The encryption bill, which was introduced to Parliament last month and referred to a parliamentary joint committee, gives new powers to law enforcement and other agencies to compel tech companies to circumvent encryption.

It has been fiercely criticised by a wide range of human rights, legal and civil and digital rights advocates, with concerns it would undermine encryption protection as a whole.

In the speech, Ms Rowland acknowledged that it was “undoubtedly a controversial piece of legislation that rightly has elicited strong reactions and concerns from industry, academia, privacy advocates and cybersecurity experts”.

“Whilst I remain unclear on what the full scope of the bill is in terms of its practical application – and I’m yet to have someone articulate it to me – the proposed assistance framework does appear to go beyond encryption and potentially into the sphere of modifying devices and software at different points in the service stack,” Ms Rowland said.

“This, to the best of my knowledge, is new territory and therefore needs to be scrutinised rigorously.”

The legislation has so far been rushed to Parliament, and more time needs to be given to consider it in-depth, Ms Rowland said.

“Labor was and remains concerned at the haste with which the Bill was introduced to Parliament. We want to see an appropriate number of days allocated to public hearings to allow experts, industry and civil rights advocates to put forward their views and respond to questions in a public forum,” she said.

“The Parliament’s bipartisan approach to national security does not extinguish our capacity to have robust and constructive debates.”

“It is proper that the capabilities of our security agencies adapt to remain effective in the digital age. Our collective task is to work together to get the details and the balance right.”

The controversial encryption legislation was unveiled in August, with submissions on the draft bill closing on 10 September. Just five working days later the legislation was approved by the Coalition party room, despite thousands of submissions being received.

The legislation introduced to Parliament included some minor changes to the draft bill, but many have been concerned that the government is ignoring the widespread feedback on the new powers.

Ms Rowland has also called on the government to better consult with the relevant stakeholders to strike the right balance with the bill.

“The second action Labor would like to see is for the government to engage directly with the affected industries and stakeholder bodies regarding the significant concerns they have raised about the measures in this bill, with a view to developing workable solutions,” she said.

“This engagement should include a series of industry workshops to develop scenarios and stress test them against the processes and mechanisms set out in the bill.

“This will help to develop a better understanding of where legitimate objectives encounter technical barriers, or when there is an absence of limiting factors, or adequate accountability, in circumstances where requests can be issued.”

It comes as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton slammed the opposition for “playing games” over the legislation, and urged the Senate to quickly pass the bill.

During a National Press Club address in Canberra, Mr Dutton positioned a binary argument, claiming that it would endanger lives to delay the bill, and that Labor was backing Silicon Valley tech giants rather than Australians.

“If there is a terrorist attack that takes place today and in the coronial inquest after we find out that there had been a flurry of exchanges across encrypted messaging apps…people would rightly say, ‘well why didn’t you discover that information, why didn’t you exploit that device?’ If you had got there in time you would have stopped people dying. That’s what we’re dealing with here, there’s a common sense approach,” Mr Dutton said.

“We are now losing our edge to criminal enterprises. We need to ensure that our law enforcement agencies can continue to exercise appropriate and properly supervised powers in support of community safety.”

Mr Dutton also hit out at the range of large global tech companies that have come out in opposition to the encryption bill.

“Some of the biggest critics are multibillion-dollar Silicon valley companies, the same ones that need to be hounded to pay tax in Australia and other jurisdictions. The same companies who have misused personal data to commercial advantage,” he said.

“These are the same companies who protest about having to help police with the encryption problem, whilst operating their businesses in less democratic countries and accepting at the same time a compromise on privacy to allow their presence in those growth markets.”

He urged the Opposition to support the passage of the legislation through Parliament.

“It is an essential piece of legislation and it can only succeed if it’s supported in the Senate by the Labor Party. We want bipartisan support for key national security bills, but this is one where Mark Dreyfus is playing games and Mr Shorten needs to exert his authority and support the Bill,” Mr Dutton said.

“The decision for Mr Shorten is whether he supports the Silicon Valley multi-billion dollar companies or whether he’s on the side of protecting Australians and we have countless live investigations, right this very day, being hampered by the limitation in the current law and it is time to change this law.”

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