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Concerns raised about Australian cyber snooping laws with global implications

Anything connected to the internet -- from smartphones to power plant controllers -- can be manipulated, a Dutch military cyber official said
ODD ANDERSEN (AFP/File)
Laws could create large security gaps, privacy experts warn.

Controversial laws rushed through the Australian parliament on Thursday came under attack by security and privacy advocates in Australia and abroad on Friday.

The bills allow spies and police to snoop on the encrypted communications of suspected terrorists and criminals.

Under the legislation, Canberra can compel local and international providers -- including overseas communication giants such as Facebook and WhatsApp -- to remove electronic protections, conceal covert operations by government agencies, and help with access to devices or services.

The Law Council of Australia on Friday said the legislation "rammed" through parliament left open the possibility of "overreach" from the police and intelligence officials.

The council was concerned the new laws could circumvent the need for authorities to get a warrant before obtaining communications, while people could be detained in some circumstances without being allowed to contact a lawyer.

"It's not just the rights of citizens that are potentially compromised by this outcome, but intelligence agencies and law enforcement that are at risk of acting unlawfully," said council president Morry Bailes in a statement.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

- Local laws with global impact -

But experts warned the "unprecedented powers" had far-reaching implications for global cybersecurity, in what is seen as the latest salvo between global governments and tech firms over national security and privacy.

A major feature of the laws is that australian authorities will also be able to require that those demands be kept secret.

There are fears this could allow for policy laundering by its "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing partners -- Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and the United States -- who cannot enact similar powers because of constitutional or human rights protections.

"There is an extraterritorial dimension to it, where for example the US would be able to make... a request directly to Australia to get information from Facebook or a tech company," said Queensland University of Technology's technology regulation researcher Monique Mann.

JACK GUEZ (AFP/File)

- Not legal, but not unusual -

Snooping into private conversations, even if not legally authorized, is not unusual.

Israeli firm NSO is one of a few secretive high tech companies which have made the news in the last few years, as recurring evidence of routine surveillance by governments of their citizens is uncovered.

They came under fire last month for allegedly selling software to Saudi Arabia which would have allowed them to spy on the private conversations of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Such technology allows direct access to a specific device, instead of building inherent weaknesses into the system, which is what global communications firms warn about.

Facebook and Twitter argue that forcing them to decrypt messages on apps could create vulnerabilities in their products, which could be exploited by bad actors.

"If you require encryption to be undermined to help law enforcement investigations, then you are ultimately undermining that encryption in all circumstances. Those backdoors will be found and exploited by others, making everyone less secure," he said.

"Encryption underpins the foundations of a secure internet and the internet pervades everything that we do in a modern society," Tim de Sousa, a principal at privacy and cybersecurity consultancy elevenM, told AFP.

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