Australia poised to force tech firms to hand over encrypted data

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s parliament is poised on Thursday to pass laws requiring tech firms such as Alphabet Inc’s Google (GOOGL.O), Facebook FB.N and Apple (AAPL.O) to give police access to private encrypted data linked to suspected illegal activities.

A 3D printed Apple logo is seen in front of a displayed cyber code in this illustration taken March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The laws, staunchly opposed by the tech giants since Australia is seen as a test case as other nations explore similar rules, provide for fines up to A$10 million ($7.3 million) for failing to give authorities access to private data.

They have the backing of both major political parties, with a bi-partisan parliamentary committee recommending their immediate passage late on Wednesday, clearing the way for Australia to be among the first nations to introduce such rules.

The government has said the proposed laws are needed to counter terror attacks and organized crime and that security agencies would need to seek warrants to access personal data.

“These laws are used to catch the scum that would try to bring our country down and we can’t give them a leave pass,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on 2GB radio on Thursday.

“I do get a bit irritated when what sound like very sophisticated arguments basically at the end of the day become a shield for the nastiest pieces of work you can think of,” he said.

A final draft of the bill has not yet been tabled, however lawmakers are expected to deal with it on Thursday, which is the last parliamentary sitting day for 2018.

Technology companies have strongly opposed efforts to create what they see as a back-door to users’ data, a stand-off that was propelled into the public arena by Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a 2015 shooting in California.

Representatives of Facebook (FB.O), Google (GOOGL.O), Amazon (AMZN.O) and Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Apple (AAPL.O) had previously, in a public submission to lawmakers, said demanding access to encrypted data would necessitate weakening the encryption and increase the risk of hacking.

“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,” Apple said in its submission.

“It’s unjustifiably rushed and it’s deeply alarming,” said Lizzie O’Shea, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for a Safe and Secure Internet, a tech lobby group of which the four giants are members via an industry association.

“The safeguards that are in there to protect systemic integrity are not worth the paper they’re written on … When you weaken (encryption) for one purpose you weaken it for all purposes.”

($1 = 1.3755 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Sandra Maler

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