Andrew Little responds to Australia passing anti-encryption law

New Zealand won't be following Australia and passing an anti-encryption bill, despite some regarding it a route to curbing criminal communications.  

The Australian Government passed a law on Thursday that requires technology companies to provide law enforcement with access to encrypted communications. 

While the anti-encryption bill has been controversial, it passed through the Australian Parliament by 44 votes to 12 in the Senate, having already cleared the lower House where just two MPs voted against it. 

The bill has been opposed by privacy advocates and technology companies because it takes away people's freedom, but Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government said the bill is important to impede criminals who use encrypted messaging to communicate. 

Attorney General Christian Porter said the law will ensure that national security and law enforcement agencies have the "modern tools they need, with appropriate authority and oversight, to access the encrypted conversations of those who seek to do us harm". 

Andrew Little, Minister Responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), confirmed to Newshub that New Zealand is not considering introducing a similar bill, and that "any encroachment on encryption would be a very serious step".  

"Any concerns about the extent to which encryption is being used to conceal illegal or seditious activity would need to be the subject of widespread public scrutiny and debate before the Government would consider taking action."

"The Australian law is a matter for the Australian Parliament and its legislation alone is not a reason for New Zealand to respond." 

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had called for large companies like Facebook and Apple that own messaging services to open up access to security agencies to help them combat the spread of extremism.  

Australia's anti-encryption stance has been questioned by the likes of human rights lawyer Lizzie O'Shea, who, in a New York Times op-ed, claimed the "Anglophone world are now hoping that Australia will lead the charge in developing ways to get decrypt information at will..." 

"Once you've built the tools, it becomes very hard to argue that you can't hand [encrypted communications] over to the US government, the UK -- it becomes something they can all use," she wrote, referring to the Five Eyes agreement between Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and UK. 

The Five Eyes group of nations met for a conference in August to discuss "grave threats" online and ways to tackle illicit material being shared by the likes of terrorists. One of the solutions put forward was to break end-to-end internet encryption.

Internet protection agency InternetNZ decried the possibility of ending encrypted communications in New Zealand, saying it's needed for things like online banking and booking travel safely.

"We need it to keep ourselves safe and secure online. Without it no one will have trust in the Internet," said InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter.  

Complications around encryption were highlighted in 2016 when Brazilian police arrested a senior Facebook executive over a court's demand that the company provide data from its WhatsApp messaging service to help in a drug-trafficking investigation. 

WhatsApp completed its end-to-end encryption rollout in 2016, shortly after the Facebook-owned company announced it had passed a billion active users. Telegram is another popular encrypted messaging service, boasting some 200 million users. 

There are concerns among the Five Eyes around encryption being utilised by terrorists. WhatsApp doesn't have access to any messages sent by its users, which former British home secretary Amber Rudd said is an issue in the fight against terrorism.  

In a joint-statement by the Interior Ministers, Immigration Ministers, and Attorneys General of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US in June last year, it noted that noted that "encryption can severely undermine public safety efforts by impeding lawful access..."

Australia's leader of the Opposition Labor Party, Bill Shorten, said that the party wanted to pass the new encryption bill into law "so we at least give our intelligence agencies some of the tools they need".