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Why We're Paying Attention to Australia's New Encryption Laws

This is not a fringe issue' - Ed Husic MP, Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy

Although Advoc8 is in the thick of Australia's advocacy sector, these days our team is more focused on building technology than the cut and thrust of public policy development.

But when we heard about Australia's new encryption law, and its likely impact on the local tech sector and online safety more broadly, we felt compelled to get involved.

So this morning we attended a forum by Safe Encryption Australia, a coalition of industry associations, startups and professional associations seeking amendments to the new law. Turned out we weren't the only ones concerned - we arrived to a full house of over 300 industry bodies, startups, established companies, universities, and other concerned groups.

The objective of the forum was to discuss amendments to the Assistance and Access Act that was hushed through Parliament on the last sitting day of Federal Parliament in 2018. In its present form, the Act gives law enforcement the power to compel technology companies to provide sensitive data, build 'back-doors' and decrypt secure data, in the name of national security.

Encryption is an all or nothing thing, where weakened encryption is as good as none at all.

Undermining encryption affects everything we do online, so while the intent of the legislation may be to provide access only to communications like WhatsApp messages, in effect it applies everywhere. The very same encryption technology used to conceal your messages, also keeps your banking activities secure, and your myHealthRecord private.

Breaking one, breaks them all.

No one disputes the challenges governments face in the age of the internet and encrypted technologies like WhatsApp and iMessage. In fact, tech and cybersecurity expert Eddie Sheehy pointed out that most CEOs would delight in helping governments take down criminals when done in a collaborative way (we sure would!)

However according to today's panelists, which included Labor's Ed Husic MP and Atlassian's Scott Farquhar, this law is overreaching, damaging to the Australian tech sector, and has serious privacy implications for everyday Australians using everyday encryption.

While it's unlikely Advoc8 would ever become a criminal's choice of encrypted communications technology, requiring government intervention, we are concerned at the incredibly broad nature of the Act, which currently captures just about any online technology company, as well as its vague terminology. That's why we're supporting the amendments being put forward by StartupAus, which include narrowing the Act's scope and increasing oversight.

There's a good rundown of the issue from a legal perspective here, and StartupAus' submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is here.

If safe encryption matters to you, you know what to do - get advocating!

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