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Australia spy chief is defending TOLA Act, an unpopular anti-encryption law

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Last month, Australia passed a controversial law that gives it the power to fine technology companies millions of dollars if law enforcement isn’t granted access to encrypted messages.

Tech companies use encryption technology to ensure that only the sender and recipient of a message can read its content. Services like WhatsApp and iMessage are encrypted, meaning if the police asked Facebook or Apple for message, the tech companies would not be able to provide it.

Australia is asking for a so-called “back door,” a feature that would allow a provider like Apple to decrypt specific messages for law enforcement. Most security experts believe that these kind of features weaken privacy for all users, not just criminals.

Australia’s law, the “Assistance and Access Bill 2018,” is the world’s first in recent years to threaten encryption — and a new report from the Economist highlights just how unpopular it is.

Citing a tally of public comments about the legislation before it was passed, only one was in favor of the law, according to the Economist, with a whopping 342 comments filed arguing against the bill.

You can read all the public comments here.

Apple is speaking out against the law

Perhaps the loudest corporate voice among many against the law is Apple, which filed a comment against the bill in October calling it “vague” and “dangerous.” Apple famously faced off against the FBI when it asked it to create a similar back door feature in a criminal case about a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

“This is no time to weaken encryption,” Apple said in its published testimony. “There is profound risk of making criminals’ jobs easier, not harder. Increasingly stronger — not weaker — encryption is the best way to protect against these threats.”

“For instance, the bill could allow the government to order the makers of smart home speakers to install persistent eavesdropping capabilities into a person’s home, require a provider to monitor the health data of its customers for indications of drug use, or require the development of a tool that can unlock a particular user’s device regardless of whether such tool could be used to unlock every other user’s device as well,” Apple continued.

In response to the global clamor over the law, Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate — a spy agency — issued a rare public statement on Wednesday.

“Encryption is a good thing. It is an essential part of a safe, secure online experience. The government does not want to change that,” Burgess wrote. “But if two Australians are using a messaging app to plot a terrorist attack, it is clearly crucial for the relevant authorities to find out what they are saying. But law enforcement and security agencies can only do so in very specific circumstances – with a warrant for example.”

“Many of the claims about the ‘dangerous’ nature of the Act are hyperbolic, inaccurate and influenced by self-interest, rather than the national interest,” he continued.

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