New Australian Legislation Challenges Unbreakable Encryption

Australia passed a law that challenges the right of tech companies to sell devices with unbreakable encryption. The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, which took effect last month, covers all devices sold in Australia. But if Apple, for example, creates a back door for its iPhones sold there, authorities in other countries previously stymied by Apple’s tough encryption could demand the same access. Australia’s law said it can’t ask a company to build universal decryption.

The New York Times reports that this issue “came to a head about four years ago when Apple resisted a federal request to help investigators gain access to a locked iPhone that had belonged to a man who took part in a shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.” The FBI found a way into the phone without Apple’s help.

The Australian law has its limits; authorities need a warrant to gain access to a device and a notice must be “reasonable and proportionate” — although “the agency issuing the notice decides what is reasonable.” The company in question can appeal, asking for “an independent assessment panel consisting of a technical expert and a former judicial officer to review the notice.”

But a workaround for one iPhone “potentially introduc[es] something that could work for all of them,” to the dismay of Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of Atlassian, the business software company that is “among Australia’s biggest tech companies.” “All of Australian technology is tarnished by it,” he said.

Australia isn’t alone in demanding such rights. In 2016, the U.K. passed the Investigatory Powers Act, by which law enforcement “must first ask a judicial approver” to gain access to data. The law not only allows government agencies to “compel tech companies to install software on a user’s device to get around encryption,” but also can prevent them from alerting the user.

In response to the Australian law, Apple submitted a statement to its Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security that, “any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data for anyone will by extension weaken the protections for everyone.” Last July, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “the laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia,” a reflection of how politicians there believe terrorism concerns trump privacy.