ASIO’s head has admitted the agency’s pretty pleased about legislation enacted in 2018 compelling encrypted communication providers, like WhatsApp, to hand over messages if users are under investigation for serious crimes. In a speech detailing the agency’s threat assessments, he told the audience he was “happy to report that the internet did not break as a result!”
The ASIO Director-General of Security Mike Burgess delivered the agency’s Annual Threat Assessment on February 24 and outlined a number of insightful cases ASIO had worked on from tracking the rise of neo-nazism in the country to the confirmation of at least one sleeper agent ring. Among them was also the agency’s use of the Assistance And Access Act ” a law passed in 2018 allowing Australia’s spy agencies to request apps to hand over encrypted messages if subjects are under investigation.
“Technology should not be beyond the rule of law,” Burgess said in the speech.
“Encrypted communications damage intelligence coverage in nine out of 10 priority counter terrorism cases.”
Burgess admitted ASIO had used it within 10 days of the Act being passed in parliament.
“I can confirm that ASIO has used the Assistance and Access Act to protect Australians from serious harm. We needed to take advantage of the new powers within 10 days of the legislation coming into effect ” a clear indication of its significance to our mission,” Burgess said.
“And I’m happy to report that the internet did not break as a result!”
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The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, better known as the Assistance And Access Act, was passed back in December 2018 after much controversy.
Summed up by the Department of Home Affairs, Schedule 1 of the Act allows the country’s spy agencies ” ASIO, ASIS and ASD ” to request voluntary assistance of communication providers to reveal specific encrypted messages. If they decline, they can also require the assistance, provided the request is reasonable, proportionate, practicable and technically feasible.
Those providers include the obvious encrypted messaging apps, like WhatsApp, but can also request data and messages from telcos, device manufacturers as well as any retailers providing wifi to customers.
The second Schedule allows for ASIO to covertly access devices such as laptops, mobile phones and USBs in order to collect information in investigations regarding an alleged serious crime. It amends the agency’s existing warrant regime so if you’re being investigated and your device is accessed, you’ll never know it and ASIO never has to disclose it.
“The bottom line was this, these new powers helped ASIO prevent a real risk of injury to Australians,” Burgess said.
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Outside of the encryption law, Burgess also admitted the agency had been tracking an increase in activity regarding organised ideological groups such as neo-Nazi and Islamic extremists.
“In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology,” Burgess said.
“These groups are more organised and security conscious than they were in previous years.”
Burgess outlined these groups were evolving their techniques to evade agency interception and ASIO was taking necessary steps required to response to these threats. The rise of extremism wasn’t the only thing on ASIO’s radar ” espionage straight out of a Cold War thriller was still happening in 21st century Australia.
“The agent lay dormant for many years, quietly building community and business links, all the while secretly maintaining contact with his offshore handlers,” Burgess said of an uncovered sleeper agent plot.
“The agent started feeding his spymasters information about Australia-based expatriate dissidents, which directly led to harassment of the dissidents in Australia and their relatives overseas.
“In exchange for significant cash payments, the agent also provided on-the-ground logistical support for spies who travelled to Australia to conduct intelligence activities.”
ASIO’s head was proud to announced the agency squashed this infiltration attempt too. He highlighted it as an example of why the agency’s efforts are crucial to maintaining who Australia is as a society and who it wants to be in the future.
If only robust national security could be achieved without compromising the data privacy of every citizen.
Correction: Gizmodo Australia incorrectly attributed some of the quotes to Governor-General David Hurley instead of Director-General of Security Mike Burgess. We regret this error.
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