Dutton Is Coming For Encrypted Messaging Services

Dutton Is Coming For Encrypted Messaging Services
Image: Getty

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) says there’s no justifiable reason why a law-abiding citizen would need to use an encrypted communication platform like Signal, Telegram or ProtonMail

In a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) as part of the inquiry into the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020, the ACIC asserted that encrypted messaging services are “almost exclusively” used for illegal activity, which is simply not true.

“These platforms are used almost exclusively by SOC [serious and organised crime] groups and are developed specifically to obscure the identities of the involved criminal entities and enable avoidance of detection by law enforcement,” the ACIC declared. “They enable the user to communicate within closed networks to facilitate highly sophisticated criminal activity”.

In case you missed it, the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill was proposed by Peter Dutton last year in what can only be described as yet another way for the Home Affairs minister to completely obliterate any sense of privacy in Australia.

According to the ACIC, criminals are using encrypted messaging services for money laundering, drug smuggling and the distribution of child exploitation material, among other things.

“Criminals are increasingly using the Dark Web and dedicated encrypted communication platforms to facilitate and undertake a wide range of serious crimes, including money laundering, illicit drug and firearms smuggling, and the production and dissemination of child exploitation material,” the ACIC said.

While services like Telegram and Signal are used for organised criminal activity, this is far from the only use for these platforms. For example, countless journalists depending on these services for secure communication with vulnerable sources.

The ACIC told the committee it was seeking additional powers to aid in the gathering and understanding of information on SOC groups who are hiding their criminal activity on encrypted platforms.

If the proposed bill is passed, the Australian Federal Police and ACIC will be handed three new powers to make it easier to handle online organised crime.

The three new computer warrants give the AFP and ACIC powers over data disruption, network activity and account takeover.

Basically, the new bill aims to fill the gaps the ACIC claims to face when targeting online organised crime with a three-pronged approach.

The network activity warrant would reportedly “immediately transform the ACIC’s ability to discover and understand serious criminal groups using the Dark Web and encrypted communication platforms to undertake and facilitate serious crimes.”

Additionally, the data disruption warrant would allow the ACIC to intercept and interfere with data being shared by organised online criminals.

“This will be particularly powerful in the context of disrupting criminal activity which is largely occurring online,” the ACIC alleged.

And finally, the account takeover warrant would allow the ACIC to identify otherwise anonymous online criminals, which would be game-changing when it comes to prosecuting online organised crime.

“This will play a crucial role in uncovering the identities of otherwise anonymous criminals, as well as gathering evidence of the initiation and commissioning of serious offences online, including on the Dark Web and where encrypted communication platforms are in use,” the ACIC said.

If passed, the new warrants would allow Australian authorities to hack, edit, delete or copy material on digital accounts across the globe without the account owner’s consent or knowledge.

This doesn’t seem quite so daunting when we’re talking about intercepting child porn rings and major drug smuggling operations, but its particularly concerning when those same powers could be used on journalists, activists or regular law-abiding citizens.

Critics of the bill have asserted that it could target anyone from political activists such as Black Lives Matter campaigners to your next door neighbour who illegally downloaded a movie to watch last night.

“No one’s safe under these new laws,” Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said of the proposal last year.

“It will affect grassroots communities across the country, it will affect children. It will affect anybody who downloads a movie illegally over the internet – they could go to jail for five years.”

The proposed new legislation sounds strikingly similar to the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, which was proposed as an anti-terrorism measure but subsequently used in multiple raids in relation to the journalistic coverage of the alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. 

There’s no word on exactly how far the proposed bill would stretch, or if it would give the government the power to surveil encrypted conversations between journalists and vulnerable sources.

The entire bill essentially operates on the theory that if you’re not partaking in illegal activity, you have nothing to hide, which is not only untrue, but also potentially dangerous to the freedoms of Australians online.