Use of Australia’s controversial encryption busting laws ramped up significantly last year, according to analysis of government reports.

The access powers were used seven times between 1 July 2018 and 30 June 2019, according to a new annual report.

But an answer by the Department of Home Affairs to a question on notice from Labor Senator Kristina Keneally late last year showed the powers had been used 25 times in total up until 15 November 2019, meaning there were 18 instances in the first 4.5 months of the current financial year.

Latest figures

The latest report, which covers the previous financial year only, gives more detail on who is using the powers. In that period, five “technical assistance requests” were given by the Australian Federal Police, and two were issued by NSW police.

Technical assistance requests are new powers for law enforcement enabling them to request communication providers voluntarily use their existing capabilities to access users’ communications. The new powers, along with mandatory request notices for accessing encrypted communications; including building new access capabilities, are set out in the Assistance and Access Bill, which passed Parliament in late 2018.

The latest report on the use of interception and access powers is the first to include detailed information about use of the new encryption access powers. 

Source: Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, Annual Report 2018-19.

According to the report, the AFP invoked the powers for six instances of cybercrime, two organised offences, five telecommunication offences, and one case involving theft.

The NSW Police used the powers for one case of homicide and one of illicit drug offences.

Labor, which helped pass the bill, has vowed to reform the extensive powers after it claimed the government reneged on a deal to review the legislation in early 2019. The Opposition is expected to introduce amendments to the legislation when Parliament resumes next week.

The tech sector has railed against the laws, seen as the most far reaching encryption access powers in the western world, arguing it will have unintended negative consequences on the local industry.

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