The opposition has vowed to reform Australia’s “terrible” new encryption laws, which currently give Australian security agencies unprecedented powers to access encrypted messages.

Labor helped pass the Assistance and Access Bill which created the laws late last year with an agreement from government that significant amendments would be made early in 2019. That is yet to happen and Labor has accused the government of reneging on its commitment.

The legislation has been widely criticised by the tech industry for being too broad and fundamentally misunderstanding encryption technology. There are also fears the laws undermine Australian tech companies which will struggle to be trusted by foreign customers and partners.

If Labor is elected to government this year, current Shadow Minister for Human Services and the Digital Economy, Ed Husic says it will move to significantly reform the new encryption laws, addressing many of the local tech industry’s concerns.

Husic told a crowd of technology industry stakeholders in Sydney today that passing the bill without major amendments last year was intended as a “short term” measure to help security agencies keep Australians safe over the Christmas holidays. He said, security agencies had advised Labor the new powers were necessary.

Labor also feared holding up the legislation would mean any major security incidents during the break would be blamed on them.

“Our view was to give something to the security agencies in the short term with the commitment that was given to us by the other side of politics that the amendments that had been put forward – that had been fashioned on the basis of 17 recommendations from the bipartisan parliamentary committee – would be debated and given effect in the following year – this year,” Husic said.

“This did not happen.”

Labor did attempt to make some of those amendments in February, which would have addressed many of the key concerns from industry but, Husic says, “The government did not see fit to allow that debate to occur in the senate”.

Pushing for reform

When given the chance Labor will introduce amendments that would significantly alter the bill, Husic said, whether that is in opposition or as the government.

The reforms will provide more oversight through tougher warrant requirements, more stringent reporting to combat scope creep and strengthen the legislation to prohibit requests that would introduce “systematic weakness”.

Husic did not provide a timeline for introducing the reforms but said they will happen “no matter what” and they had already been discussed within caucus.

Under the current laws a warrant is required to intercept electronic communication but not to issue notices that would force companies or employees to share information or create encryption cracking capabilities.

Husic says that lack of a warrant requirements in some areas amounts to a lack of appropriate judicial oversight and the limited warrant requirements that do exist – retired judges are able to issue them – are insufficient.

“Most retired judges, a good day in tech for them is working out a remote control. You need to have a dedicated judicial official who is across these issues and knows the impact of the decisions that they will or will not make, and they need to be accountable for that.”

Husic also said Labor would introduce more reporting requirements to improve transparency around how the laws are being used to combat “legislative creep”.

“The overreach that might occur as a result of [the legislation] need to be clamped down.”

Husic was speaking at the Safe Encryption Australia event in Sydney, an open forum organised by InnovationAUS and StartupAUS to debate the new laws. Government representatives declined requests to attend the event, according to organisers.

The Department of Home Affairs have released a response to some of the concerns raised by industry.

Husic urged industry stakeholders to continue to push for reform.

“Given … what’s at risk with these terrible laws, the way they’ve been put in, we can not simply afford to let this drift off.”

Cover image: UTS/Guy Degen

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