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Be careful what you type in Australia. A new law will give authorities access to encrypted chats.

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 12/6/2018 Rick Noack
A person holds a smartphone with the Facebook logo in front of displayed “top secret” and “email” words, in this picture illustration taken Dec. 6, 2018. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic)© Dado Ruvic/Reuters A person holds a smartphone with the Facebook logo in front of displayed “top secret” and “email” words, in this picture illustration taken Dec. 6, 2018. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic)

As terrorist attacks increased after 2014 amid the Islamic State’s global push, Australian authorities saw themselves confronted with a challenge they shared with all other Western agencies: they could identify suspects, but accessing their communications to discover their intentions often remained impossible. More than 95 percent of Australian terrorism suspects use encrypted communications, according to estimates by the country’s cyber security ministry.

On Thursday, Australia’s parliamentpassed the most expansive bill of all Western countries that could force major U.S. tech companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook to provide authorities with access to such encrypted data. Many messaging apps that are being used by a majority of Australians offer encryption as either the standard or as an option, including Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

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Australian law enforcement representatives unsurprisingly celebrated the parliamentary approval Thursday, with Attorney General Christian Porter saying that the opposition Labour Party had “put the safety of Australians above political point-scoring,” after initially opposing the legislation.

Australia is the first nation in the so-called “Five Eyes” alliance — also composed of Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Britain — to move ahead with legislation that will almost inevitably result in a standoff with major private corporations.

In the United States, Silicon Valley has so far resisted efforts by U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement agencies seeking to gain access to the communications of suspects in criminal investigations. Creating a backchannel, they say, could open the door for other illegitimate use by state-sponsored foreign entities and criminal groups.

When the FBI asked Apple in 2015 to unlock the phone of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack, Apple declined, citing the threat of such a back door. (The FBI later said it had unlocked the phone by itself, but efforts to do so remain costly and cannot be applied on a broader scale.)

Thursday’s parliamentary decision in Australia is the most serious attempt by any national parliament to date to rein in tech companies involuntarily.

Critics fear the vote sets a dangerous precedent. “Several critical issues remain unaddressed in this legislation, most significantly the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians’ data security at risk,” read a statement by thee Digital Industry Group Inc on Thursday.

Top tech companies opposed to the new bill are also concerned that Australia’s new standards could also be adopted elsewhere, including in Europe, where lawmakers have already pushed for some of the world’s toughest privacy standards.

Tech representatives emphasized on Thursday that Australia’s national security legislation contradicted European demands for more consumer privacy, but some European lawmakers have still demanded better law enforcement access in recent months, too. They say that both initiatives do not necessarily have to contradict each other.

Whereas regulatory scrutiny has mostly been a financial threat in Europe, where tech companies can face maximum fines of up to 4 percent of their annual turnover for privacy breaches, Australia’s new bill goes further by holding individual representatives liable, as well. Even though maximum fines are limited to about $7 million, individuals who fail to comply with the bill may face arrest and prison sentences, according to the draft that is due to take effect.

Until Thursday, it appeared unlikely that the upper house of parliament, the Senate, would agree to those provisions already passed by the lower house. Australia’s Labor opposition party surprisingly changed course, however, saying that it would back the bill in both chambers, provided that minor amendments are made after the legislation is enacted.

The new bill is now set to take effect before Christmas.

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