Police Are Already Using New Laws To Hound Apps For Access To Encrypted Data

Late last year, the Government passed new laws which force encrypted apps to hand over customer data to police if requested, even going as far as requiring custom access to apps be built for them. As the ABC reports, the police have already begun using the laws while the Act’s kinks are still being ironed out.

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The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment was rushed through parliament in December with the support of the Labor party. Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, said it was urgently needed for national security purposes, mainly to combat terrorism and child exploitation material.

There are three different tiers to the Act, including an assistance request, an assistance notice, and a capability notice. The first is a voluntary request for information, the second is a requirement for the company in question to give assistance if they’re able to, and the third is an order for the company to build an entirely new function into its app in order to assist police, under the caveat that encryption at large is not to be broken.

In other words, the police can force a company to build special access to monitor a suspect’s communications, but in a kind of one-off capacity that doesn’t compromise the encryption capabilities of the entire app or device.

According to a submission from The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is reviewing the Act, the Australian Federal Police are currently negotiating a number of assistance requests (first tier) for suspect’s data.

New penalties, including up to 10 years jail for suspect’s who fail to hand over passwords for devices or services, have also been swung around by police. In two cases cited by the AFP, suspects granted access to their data after being advised of the penalties. One of these was a drug investigation and the other was a child exploitation material investigation.

While Labor had a fairly tentative involvement with the Act’s amendment, they were hoping to have further amendments put in place early this year to ensure there was no overreach by police, but it’s now doubtful there will be enough time to do this before the Federal Election takes place.

Coalition members and the tech industry alike are concerned with some aspects of the bill, arguing that there’s not enough judicial oversight and that police are customising certain definitions to meet their needs.

Apart from vague definitions, the Act could also weaken our tech industry’s competitiveness in the global market, experts told the ABC. The PJCIS have until April 3 to submit their report on the laws.