Thursday , 13 December 2018
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Encryption laws to restore telecoms interception powers to police: cyber expert

Encryption laws to restore telecoms interception powers to police: cyber expert

SABRA LANE: After weeks of a bare-knuckle political fight, the major parties have reached an agreement to pass controversial laws through Federal Parliament, allowing police and intelligence agencies to monitor encrypted communications.

Under the deal, only state anti-corruption commissions will be excluded from the new laws.

Labor says the bill is far from perfect and that the Government has agreed that they’ll be reviewed in 12 months.

Joining us now to discuss the laws is Alastair MacGibbon, national cyber security adviser for the Federal Government and the head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

Good morning and welcome to AM.

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Good morning Sabra.

SABRA LANE: How will these laws make Australia safer?

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Well, in many respects what these laws do is help restore the authorities and powers that police have had all along.

They’ve been able to intercept telecommunications since 1979 lawfully but in the last several years they’ve been, what they say, going blind or going deaf because of encryption, the use of modern technologies.

What this law does is help codify a conversation between police and technology companies.

It has to be reasonable, it has to be proportionate, it has to be technically feasible but it is to work with those companies to help fight crime.

SABRA LANE: Does it make it safer?

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Look, I think it does. What it does is give a tool back to law enforcement agencies and security agencies that they’ve been losing over the last several years and again, all of this stuff is done under warrant.

Some of the commentary over the last couple of months has surprised me. You need to have a telecommunications interception warrant, you need to have a listening device, you need to have a search warrant.

These are the, frankly, quite civil liberty breaching authorities that law enforcement agencies have today.

What it is doing is allowing those warrants to work in a modern society.

SABRA LANE: Once the law is passed, how soon can authorities actually use these powers?

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Well, I would expect there would be agencies, once the laws come into effect, that would start exploring what this means.

I don’t think you’re going to have rush of dozens of agencies at the door of big tech companies but what I do think it will have is reasonable discussions between frankly, often US-based tech companies that for years have seen themselves beyond the reach not just of our law but our social expectations and nothing in this is unreasonable.

Nothing in this is building systemic weaknesses. That’s one of the other arguments that’s been put. This is about breaking encryption.

The bill is rightfully called access and assistance. It is not called the encryption bill, it’s not about breaking encryption. It is about helping agencies get access to and assistance from these tech companies.

SABRA LANE: Alright, the Government did argue that these laws needed to be passed this week in order to ensure that Australians were safe over the Christmas period but under these laws, companies then have 28 days to respond to requests — meaning that if requests was made this Friday for example, they could respond in early January.

So not the Christmas period that, you know, the Government argued for.

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Sure, I’d expect that once this law is passed, once the Parliament of Australia who represent the people of Australia, once that message is sent to these tech companies, that they would behave in the reasonable manner that I know they will.

I was also part of new laws that helped regulate them when it came to the social media use and protection of children and I found once that law was passed, those companies understood that that represented the will of the Australian people and the need for them to cooperate and that’s what I think these large tech companies will do.

SABRA LANE: It’s world first legislation. Labor has reluctantly agreed now to pass the laws saying that they are far from perfect and the Government has noted that there will be a review in 12 months time.

Why shouldn’t it pass when the parties are convinced that it is as good as it can be?

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Well, Sabra, firstly it is not world first. The UK actually has more onerous legislation and yet most commentators seem to have overlooked that.

So in the United Kingdom they have much tougher laws here. Those tech companies, the sky hasn’t fallen, people aren’t rioting in the streets of the UK saying that their rights have been infringed.

And that is also a parliamentary democracy where people expect to be protected by the law so that their privacy and security is protected — but that doesn’t mean that criminals should have their privacy and security protected and that’s what this law does. It is less onerous than the UK.

Look, I’m not going to pass comment on the way in which this has played out politically. But what I would say, when you talk to agencies, good people who are there to protect the vast bulk of society against any infringement of their civil liberties, all they wanted was a tool that would give them the ability to work with tech companies in a reasonable and proportionate manner under the rule of law, warrant and other such things, to get the job done to help protect Australians.

SABRA LANE: Alright.

Sir Mark Rowley, the former Assistant Commissioner for the London Police, has told a conference here yesterday that often social media companies will take down offensive material and explicit material like bomb-making guides, but they don’t pass those details on to authorities about this material.

Have you encountered, have Australian authorities encountered this problem?

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Absolutely. These tech companies sometimes have taken material down and frankly, to give them their due, they are getting better at taking down some of this material.

What they’re not good at and what they’ve avoided over time is cooperating such that you can get the right information that’s necessary.

Now what this does is codify a communication between police and security agencies and the tech companies so that we can start setting social expectation, the right type of information, the right type of cooperation from these companies.

Technologies that we rely upon today but we don’t want them to be used by criminals and I think the public doesn’t want them to be used by criminals either.

SABRA LANE: Why aren’t they handing over this information?

ALASTAIR MACGIBBON: Well, there is conflict of laws, there is the fact that they operate outside jurisdictions and for a long time they’ve peddled, frankly, tech companies, this incorrect view that Australian law doesn’t apply to them and that they’re beyond the social expectations of any particular country.

And I think over the last couple of years, you’ve seen G20, you’ve seen modern Western liberal democracies saying “No, that’s fine. We want you to do your business but we want you to do it in a way that protects the bulk of citizenry” and that’s what we’re seeing here and frankly, as I say, G20 did this in Hamburg a year ago.

SABRA LANE: Alistair MacGibbon, the national cyber security advisor, thank you very much for joining AM this morning.

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