Australia is a battleground for encrypted apps

The tech industry has long sparred with law enforcement over encryption.
The tech industry has long sparred with law enforcement over encryption.
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ever since encryption seeped out of spy agencies and into the commercial world, government watchdogs have been trying to contain its spread. One of the latest battles is in Australia, where politicians are cracking down on technology firms and requiring them to allow “back door” access to encrypted messaging.

Signal, a messaging app with end-to-end encryption, indicated that it’s unable to—and won’t—comply with the requirements. The app service said in a blog post that it doesn’t keep a record of contacts, locations, group memberships, and other data, and the contents of messages and calls are protected by encryption keys it can’t access. “We remain committed to fighting mass surveillance worldwide,” Signal said.

Facebook-owned Whatsapp also has end-to-end encryption, meaning that only the service’s users are supposed to have the digital keys to unlock their communications. In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to force Apple to unlock information in an iPhone that related to a shooting in San Bernardino, California. Law enforcement reportedly found a security flaw that gave a way into the device.

Encryption—the mathematical algorithms used to encode data transmissions—is in many ways the bedrock for modern digital commerce and communications. But it’s been controversial in the tech industry from the start. Encryption used to be a monopoly of government spy organizations like the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK. That began to change in the 1960s as academics explored its potential for securing communications, and encryption eventually became a vital part of the internet’s infrastructure.

The concern is that law enforcement loses the kind of wire-tapping surveillance that it relies on to monitor suspected criminals, from drug dealer to terrorists. Those worried about privacy, meanwhile, see encryption as a way to protect regular people from criminals who might steal information, as well as from government overreach.

Spy agencies have pushed for back doors over the years that would provide access to encrypted information. The Clipper Chip in the 1990s in the US was one example—the voice-encryption chip was designed by the NSA and required users to put their keys for decoding communications into escrow with government agencies. The tech industry fiercely resisted its implementation and it never caught on.

It’s yet to be seen whether a similar process will play out in Australia. There, technology companies may not have to build back door features if it creates a systemic issue for the system, weakening the security for other users. And Signal’s response to the “Assistance and Access Bill” demonstrates that the tech industry is still ready to push back when it comes to encryption and government surveillance.