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Australian Government Officials Call for Weakening Encryption

In a statement released recently by Australian Attorney General George Brandis and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton, the two officials called for weakening encryption standards and for increased sharing of surveillance between Five Eyes countries. Their proposals, which if enacted would harm the privacy rights of people around the world, are being justified in the name of fighting terrorism. Brandis and Dutton will be attending a meeting between officials from the Five Eyes countries in July in Ottawa, Canada. Five Eyes is an intelligence sharing alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which are all parties to a multilateral treaty known as the UKUSA Agreement. Australia became a member of Five Eyes in 1956. The Ottawa conference will be a secret meeting of intelligence officials from the Five Eyes nations and is being held in the wake of several terrorist attacks that happened in the United Kingdom.

There are also other intelligence sharing agreements beyond Five Eyes, such as a second tier version called Nine Eyes, which includes Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway in addition to the original Five Eyes countries. Documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the existence of a third tier version of Five Eyes, called Fourteen Eyes, which includes the countries included in the Nine Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, as well as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. The Fourteen Eyes agreement is known as SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR).

Intelligence agencies from each of the Five Eyes countries jointly conduct global mass surveillance and share it with each other, such as with the ECHELON, PRISM, and XKeyscore global mass surveillance programs. Countries which are prohibited from spying on their own citizens often rely on another member of Five Eyes to do the spying on their citizens for them, which is then shared with them, thereby bypassing the restrictions on domestic surveillance. The Australian government has five agencies which collect and share surveillance as part of Five Eyes. Those five agencies include the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organization (AGO), and the Defense Intelligence Organization (DIO).

“As Australia’s priority issue, I will raise the need to address ongoing challenges posed by terrorists and criminals using encryption. These discussions will focus on the need to cooperate with service providers to ensure reasonable assistance is provided to law enforcement and security agencies,” Attorney General Brandis said in the statement. They plan to have the governments of the Five Eyes countries work with private corporations to help them gain access to encrypted communications. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull echoed similar sentiments, calling for social media companies to help work with governments to access user’s communications. “We need even stronger cooperation from the big social media and messaging platforms in the fight against terrorism and the extremism which spawns it,” Prime Minister Turnbull said in a speech before the Australian House of Representatives. Prime Minister Turnbull believes the Five Eyes meeting in Ottawa will help the governments to work together to stop terrorists from enjoying the freedom and privacy offered by the use of encrypted communications on the internet.

Brandis believes there should be a warrant exchange between the Five Eyes countries. He suggested that for example ASIO should be able to obtain a warrant signed by the Attorney General that could then be sent to another Five Eyes country, such as the United States’ NSA, in order to obtain information that relates to an Australian criminal investigation. Brandis and Dutton intend to push for a new data sharing agreement at the conference in Ottawa that would implement such a warrant exchange between Five Eyes countries.

Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, complained about terrorists implementing encryption and “going dark”, making it difficult for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to eavesdrop on their communications. Dutton worries that all electronic forms of communication will become encrypted in the near future. “Within a short number of years, effectively, 100 percent of communications are going to use encryption. This problem is going to degrade if not destroy our capacity to gather and act upon intelligence unless it’s addressed,” Dutton complained to the Australian newspaper The Age.

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