'An abomination': Government given final warning on encryption laws

'An abomination': Government given final warning on encryption laws

Australia's encryption laws are very difficult to understand and could result in tech entrepreneurs serving jail time, according to the final round of submissions on the government's assistance and access legislation.

Business groups have warned the federal government the amendments to the laws, which were passed in December, are "difficult to understand and interpret" and don't help the tech industry's worries about the fallout.


The policy, which allows ASIO to compel businesses to help decrypt messages in order to fight serious crime, are currently open for a final round of submissions despite already being law. This is because of the way the legislation was passed in 2018, where a series of amendments were passed without full debate but with the promise of a review in 2019.

Cryptography experts have taken this opportunity to warn the government the laws still don't make it clear when a developer would have to act to help with a law enforcement operation.


The laws are designed to consider systems security by forbidding orders for decryption where this could result in a 'systematic weakness" being created.


However, academics at the University of Melbourne's school of computing and information systems have said the definition of "systematic weakness" is too vague and has "rightly been described as an abomination".

Dr Chris Culnane and Associate Professor Vanessa Teague warned the current definition of "systematic weakness" means a whole class of technology will be affected by the decryption actions and the laws could create security flaws in systems and "may jeopardise the security or information of others".

A collection of business groups and peak bodies including the Communications Alliance and AI Group have also warned amendments need to be revisited to make it clear when businesses will have to act.

In their submission, the groups also said the threshold of crime that allows a decryption order should be revisited. At the moment, the laws allow orders to be made to investigate crimes carrying three years or more in prison, which would mean a "prank or menacing phone call" could be used as a justification to use the laws.

'Innocent Australian technologists targeted'

The technology and startup communities voiced significant opposition to the laws at the end of 2018 and said its passing spoke to a bigger issue in the government's approach to innovation. 

Culnane and Teague warned in their final submission, it will be Australian developers and startup staff that are at most risk of possible jail time if they are unable to comply with the laws.

“We would like to know whether any MP or Senator stood up in parliament and seriously advocated jailing innocent Australian technologists, mathematicians, or engineers for refusing to undermine the security of critical Australian infrastructure," they wrote.

The Law Council of Australia says there are still questions to answer about how individuals will be treated by law enforcement if they are the person that can help with decryption.

It's currently not clear how long an individual can be forced to provide decryption assistance for or an outline of safeguards including whether a technology professional can contact a lawyer or family member if they are asked to comply with a encryption law notice, the organisation says.

"If a person is required to attend a place to provide information or assistance, this may arguably amount to detention of the person," the council said in its submission.

The department of Home Affairs declined to comment on individual submissions.

A Home Affairs spokesperson said a parliamentary joint committee is conducting a review of the legislation and is due to report back to the parliament on 3 April 2019.

The Assistance and Access Act is currently law after being given royal assent on December 8.

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Emma is the small business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne.

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