Encryption Laws: Labor 'Playing Games' With Terrorists, Cormann Claims

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has accused Labor of siding with terrorists over encryption legislation.

Cormann told Sky News on Sunday that Labor is deliberately playing games with the proposed laws, which aim to give Australian security and police agencies the power to access encrypted communications on services like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Viber.

"We're very disappointed Labor is playing games with this," Cormann said.

"To think that Labor would want terrorists to able to communicate with each other... I think that Labor are using excuses."

READ MORE: The Anti-Terrorism Encryption Laws We Can't Afford To Get Wrong

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Messaging services like WhatsApp and Messenger are encrypted, meaning that only the sender and intended recipient of the message can see it -- nobody else, including the messaging service itself, can read or view the messages. The government wants police to have access to these messages, and wants to force tech companies to facilitate that access.

The laws were proposed in 2016, but negotiations stalled and the legislation went on the backburner. The government resurfaced the laws in recent weeks after the Bourke Street terror attack, claiming the incident showed the need for police to be able to access encrypted communications from criminals, and heaped pressure on Labor to rush the laws through parliament.

In a rare split on Friday, Labor and Coalition members of the parliamentary intelligence committee broke over how to move ahead on the government's proposed encryption laws.

Cormann says Labor is siding with terrorists. Image: Getty Images.

For the first time in over a decade, the committee failed to reach a bipartisan consensus. Labor members warned they could not support the government push in its current form, which aim to give security agencies the power to access private communication in order to intervene in crime and terror plots.

While this gives security and privacy to the people involved in the messaging exchange, the government and law enforcement authorities say these services are also used by criminals, terrorists and paedophiles to conceal their wrongdoing.

The Department of Home Affairs claims over 90 percent of data lawfully intercepted by the Australian Federal Police uses some form of encryption.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has called the legislation vital to Australia's national security, the laws have also copped backlash for being too broad in nature by industry groups, tech companies, and Liberal senator and Senate president Scott Ryan.

In September,  tech companies including Apple, DropBox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter released a joint statement where they criticised the proposed laws.

They said “strong encryption helps protect the security and privacy of individuals and companies around the world” and that they are concerned about “proposals that would undermine encryption of devices and services by requiring so-called ‘exceptional access’ for law enforcement".

Dutton says the laws are vital for national security.  Image: Getty Images.

Dutton is pushing for the committee to deal with the legislation quickly, so it can be passed before parliament breaks for the year on December 6. Labor however, believes the close approaching deadline doesn't allow the committee to consider the bill properly.

Labor has proposed an interim bill be passed before the end of the year, providing the proposed powers to security agencies that need them most urgently, while the committee continues its review. The opposition claims this will allow security bodies to monitor crime, while giving the committee the time they need to consider the full legislation.

But, this proposal was not accepted by the Coalition.

“Labor has sought to render the bill ineffective by taking serious criminals, frontline state police and encrypted messaging services out of its scope,” attorney-general Christian Porter and Peter Dutton said in a joint press release.

“As the prime minister has already indicated, the government wants this bill passed before Christmas, a time of heightened terrorist focus, according to the director general of security.

The laws aim to help stop crime and terror. Image: Getty Images.

“So the government will present the bill for consideration by the parliament next week.”

READ MORE: Prime Minister Urges Parliament To Pass Encryption Law

The committee is set to hand down a report on the legislation next week and it is expected to include a dissenting section from the Labor representatives. In the last decade, national security legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support, making the number of votes needed to pass it largely irrelevant.

It's not clear how Labor will propose the committee move forward with the bill once the report is handed down.

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