Australia wields vast decryption powers before planned review

Updated 08 February 2019
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Australia wields vast decryption powers before planned review

CANBERRA: Australian security agencies have begun using sweeping new powers to access encrypted communications, even before a promised review to address concerns from the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook.
The powers were granted under a new decryption law which was rushed through parliament in December amid fierce debate, and was seen as the latest salvo between governments and tech firms over national security and privacy.
Two months later, the Australian Federal Police have revealed that agents have already used it while investigating drug trafficking and child exploitation.
Under the fresh rules, refusal to grant authorities access to devices is punishable with up to 10 years in prison, and police told a parliamentary inquiry they had used that threat to compel two suspects to hand over their passwords.
Citing secrecy provisions in the law, police declined to say if they had used the new law to force device makers or telecommunications firms — including global giants like Apple — to break or bypass encrypted communications.
The same provisions bar industry from disclosing whether they have received such police demands, known as “compulsory notices.”
The government has argued the law was urgently needed to foil ongoing terrorist plots and intercept communications among other serious criminals.
But opponents allege it punches a hole in global efforts to keep governments from eavesdropping on secure communications, like WhatsApp chats.
They also argue it could undermine security by creating vulnerabilities in encryption technologies, which could then be exploited by malicious actors.

‘Enormous threat’
The legislation was adopted only after the conservative government agreed to reopen debate in the new year on amendments that would address widespread concerns among civil liberties advocates and tech industry experts that it was ill-conceived and too broad.
The Department of Home Affairs says the law is being progressively implemented and that in January it wrote to tech industry members for assistance in drawing up guidelines on how to use the new powers.
“The Department is also engaging with industry to dispel common misconception, build confidence and to reiterate the intended purpose and operation of the Act,” it said in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry.
But the tech industry appears far from reassured.
“There is no doubt there is an extremely broad coalition of stakeholders that are very concerned about the impact of this bill,” said John Stanton, chief executive of the Communications Alliance, which represents the Australian communications industry.
“It is not just industry, it is civil society and digital rights activists (too).”
Stanton warned the new law posed “an enormous threat” to export opportunities for Australian tech firms “because they can no longer provide any assurance that their gear hasn’t been tampered with by Australian security.”
“Even to say, ‘no, it hasn’t’, is an offense” under the law,” he added.
Industry groups have combined forces to present a joint submission to the latest inquiry proposing a series of amendments.
These include a higher threshold for using the law, which can currently be applied in any investigation of an offense carrying a maximum three-year jail term — a bar critics say is too low.
The industry also wants more precision about an element of the law barring authorities from forcing companies to introduce a “system vulnerability” into their products — a term they say is ambiguous.
Australia is widely seen as a global test case for such laws, with possible applications by other governments seeking to counter the growing use of encrypted messaging, notably Australia’s partners in the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance — the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
The ongoing review of these powers by parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security may have set an Australian political record.
It was launched just nine days after the encryption legislation became law and reflects the haste with which it was rammed through.
The committee must complete its review by April 3, but any moves to then amend the legislation risk running up against the Australian electoral cycle, with a federal election due by mid-May.


US women detained for speaking Spanish sue border agency

In this Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, photo provided by the ACLU of Montana, Martha Hernandez, left, and Ana Suda pose in front of a convenience store in Havre, Mont., where they say they were detained by a U.S Border Patrol agent for speaking Spanish last year. (AP)
Updated 16 February 2019
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US women detained for speaking Spanish sue border agency

  • The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed suit against US Customs and Border Protection on behalf of the women, who live in Havre

LOS ANGELES: Two US women detained by a border patrol agent in the state of Montana after he heard them speaking Spanish in a grocery store have sued the country’s border protection agency.
Video of the incident — which took place last May in the small town of Havre — showed Agent Paul O’Neal tell Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez that he had asked to see their identification as it was unusual to hear Spanish speakers in the state, which borders Canada.
“It has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it’s predominately English speaking,” he said.
“It’s not illegal, it’s just very unheard of up here,” he told the women.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed suit against US Customs and Border Protection on behalf of the women, who live in Havre.
Suda and Hernandez say in the lawsuit that O’Neal detained them for 40 minutes.
California native Hernandez and Suda, who was born in Texas, said they were standing in line to buy milk and eggs when the agent — who was standing behind them — commented on Hernandez’s accent, and asked the women where they were born.
“I asked, ‘Are you serious’?” Suda said, according to the lawsuit. “Agent O’Neal responded that he was ‘dead serious’.”
The two women say they were then asked to show identification and questioned outside the store, before eventually being released.
“The incident itself is part of a broader pattern that we’ve seen of abusive tactics by border patrol which has gotten worse since the Trump administration, which has left border patrol officers feeling emboldened to take actions like this,” Cody Wofsy, an attorney with the ACLU, told AFP.
“This has been devastating for (Suda and Hernandez),” he added.
“Havre is a small town, they felt ostracized and humiliated and made to feel unwelcome in their own town and in their own country.”
He noted the United States has no official language, with Spanish by far the most common language spoken after English.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesman declined to comment on the case.
“As a matter of policy, US Customs and Border Protection does not comment on pending litigation,” he told AFP in a statement. “However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”