October 21, 2020

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Australian Government pushes back on encryption

The Australian Government is continuing its campaign against encryption technology when it limits the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate serious crimes. The Minister for Home Affairs signed on to an international statement calling on technology companies to find solutions to enable law enforcement agencies to access encrypted content where authorisation is lawfully issued.

The statement — which was also signed by the governments of the UK, US, New Zealand, Canada, India and Japan — also calls on technology companies to engage in consultation with governments to facilitate legal access to encrypted content. Technology companies have also been asked to embed functions allowing them to act against illegal content and activity effectively with no reduction to safety.

Australia’s participation in the statement follows the government’s introduction of controversial legislation granting the government powers to compel technology companies to facilitate access to encrypted content by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. However, the statement asserts that the signatories “do not support counter-productive and dangerous approaches that would materially weaken or limit security systems”.

It goes on to say that “particular implementations of encryption technology, however, pose significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies. We urge the industry to address our serious concerns where encryption is applied in a way that wholly precludes any legal access to content.”

Many in the industry have insisted that any efforts to facilitate access to encrypted content by unintended viewers of the content will have the effect of fundamentally weakening encryption, exposing legitimate users to a host of privacy and security concerns.

“However, we challenge the assertion that public safety cannot be protected without compromising privacy or cybersecurity,” the statement reads.

“We strongly believe that approaches protecting each of these important values are possible and strive to work with industry to collaborate on mutually agreeable solutions.”

The statement could have far-ranging implications, because while it focuses on end-to-end encryption, the statement asserts that the principles apply “across the range of encrypted services available, including device encryption, custom encrypted applications and encryption across integrated platforms”.

Cybersecurity is a major focus of the Australian government as cyber threats and attacks have multiplied over the last year.

To safeguard against even more cybercrime, the Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) ICT systems will be upgraded as part of the federal government’s Economic Recovery Plan for Australia. The upgrades include new systems for control of personnel and logistics and more seamless voter interactions with the AEC.

As part of the 2020–21 Budget, the government is investing $96.7 million over three years to replace and modernise the AEC’s key elections systems, building on funding provided in the 2019–20 Budget.

This investment in ICT upgrades will help ensure the AEC can continue to efficiently run federal elections while improving services for Australian voters. The first stage of upgrades includes improvements to the AEC Contact Centre, including access to additional self-service channels with more online support and a telephone virtual assistant.

The upgrades include temporary election workforce systems, to ensure over 90,000 workers are efficiently deployed at every election, and supply chain management controls, to support rapid production and delivery of materials to polling places and counting centres.

Additionally, coordination capabilities will allow improved monitoring of operations and incidents. Future investments into the AEC’s IT systems will include the replacement of the electoral roll management technology, improvements to data analysis and the decommissioning of legacy systems.

Federal elections are one of Australia’s largest peacetime logistical events, involving a large scale of operations for venue management, staff recruitment and product movements. These events are highly reliant on ICT systems.