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July 21, 2017 - Updated on July 24, 2017

Australia’s alarming bid to crack message encryption

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. photo : Charly Triballeau / AFP
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Australian government to abandon plans to force tech companies to cooperate with law enforcement in decrypting encrypted messages, because it would pose a grave threat to privacy and especially to the confidentiality of journalists’ data and sources.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed a week ago that his government intends to introduce legislation that would oblige major technology companies to make it possible for the authorities to read encrypted messages sent between users of apps such as WhatsApp or iMessage.


The Australian government says it needs this ability in order to combat crime and terrorism but these encrypted messaging apps enable journalists to protect their sources. RSF therefore urges the Australian authorities to change course and to abandon any planned legislation that would allow them to access individual user data.


“Such legislation would violate the public’s right to privacy and would pose a danger to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and whistleblowers,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology Bureau. “Freedom of information must not be sacrificed to the fight against terrorism. The authorities must not be allowed to spy on journalists and their sources.”


RSF fully supports the criticism of the proposed legislation expressed by Australian organizations that represent the media and journalists.



Concerted drive by democracies to circumvent encryption


Australia’s initiative is unfortunately not an isolated one. In June, the French and British governments agreed on a joint plan of action that would prioritize the fight against terrorism over the right to online privacy.


They agreed to “work together to ensure that data and content of communications can be rapidly accessed for law enforcement across borders, wherever it is stored.” Again, RSF is concerned about potential abuses and the impact on the protection of journalists and their sources.


RSF supported an initiative by more than 80 organizations and individuals in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, who sent a letter to their respective governments on 30 June urging them to respect the use of encryption in messages.


Australia is ranked 19th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.