Proposed new laws could see companies forced to hand over encrypted information transmitted over mobile devices to law enforcement agencies in criminal matters.
Proposed new laws could see companies forced to hand over encrypted information transmitted over mobile devices to law enforcement agencies in criminal matters.

The question the government won’t answer

THE Australian government is promising strong new legislation to take on encryption - but just don't ask them about the details.

The issue has been a sticking point for the Coalition government in recent years as it seeks to find a way to force telcos and tech companies to provide a way for government agencies to access encrypted data on their networks and messaging platforms.

The government says that 95 per cent of the dangerous actors being targeted by ASIO use encrypted messaging, hindering intelligence agencies' ability to investigate.

Legislation is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks to give police, intelligence and security agencies the ability to access the encrypted data of suspected terrorists, paedophiles or others without creating a backdoor for hackers, but they refuse to say yet how they'll manage it.

Cyber Security Minister Angus Taylor did the media rounds yesterday spruiking the government's impending legislation set to be debated soon but refused to talk about the "technical details about how this all works".

Many in the media and those concerned about privacy issues are miffed by the government's staunch reticence.

Bret Walker SC, a former independent national security legislation monitor, who was previously tasked with reviewing Australia's national security and counter terrorism legislation, cast doubt this morning over whether the government itself knows the finer technical points at this stage.

Appearing on ABC radio this morning, he said the government's plan to modernise laws around data storage and authorised access to data was an obvious and necessary one to pursue, but suggested the government was stifling public debate by keeping details secret.

"We're told there's going to be a good law passed, which is no doubt refreshing," Mr Walker said dryly.

"The really interesting question is how is that going to be done. I don't really know, you don't know, none of us know. I hope someone in the government knows."

When asked if he had doubts about whether the government even knew the technical details, Mr Walker said he did.

"Yes, why wouldn't one have doubts when plain questions are asked - what is this law which has to be passed in public after all? What is this law going to say? - and the Minister responsible for its passage won't answer you."

Mr Walker said it was simply a matter of time until the government had to show its hand.

"They have to tell us because they have to enact the bill - and that's going to be done in public whether they like it or not," he said.

"Not telling us only serves one function, and this may be deliberate or not, I don't know. But the one function of not telling us now is the debate is less informed than it should be."


Encryption is used as a security tool for personal banking platforms and some messaging services.

Telcos like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone and tech service providers like Facebook, WhatsApp, Apple and Google would be obliged to co-operate with law enforcement to provide access to data when there is a warrant, under the proposed new laws.

Search warrants would also be modernised to require a person to provide access to their private online accounts.

But how exactly law enforcement will be able to access the information is unclear.

"It's fair to say the law has got behind the technology. It's now time to catch back up but with all the right protections," Mr Taylor said on Wednesday.

But he refused to answer questions, arguing a longstanding convention that tools and techniques used by law enforcement to catch criminals aren't publicised.

- With AAP