Laws of Australia trump mathematics - Aussie PM

Malcolm Turnbull.
Malcolm Turnbull. Photo credit: Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's comments that the laws of Australia trump the laws of mathematics have been labelled one of the "stupidest things" a politician has ever said.

Mr Turnbull on Friday had just announced plans to give government agencies powers to access encrypted messaging services, such as Facebook's WhatsApp and Apple's iMessage.

Encryption, which uses complex mathematical algorithms, means only the sender and receiver can read the message - the companies themselves have no access.

Mr Turnbull was asked by a reporter from tech news site ZDNet how law enforcement would force companies to hand over encrypted messages.

"Won't the laws of mathematics trump the laws of Australia?" asked Asha McLean.

"Well, the laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that," replied Mr Turnbull.

"The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia."

Simon Every, a tech reporter for ABC News, commented on Twitter it was "among the stupidest things I've heard a politician say. And competition is strong."

He said forcing Facebook and other encrypted messaging service providers to stop using encryption would actually make it harder to catch criminals.

"Terrorists, drug-dealers, pedophiles, organised crime syndicates - they don't need Facebook, WhatsApp, Apple or Signal. Anyone can use [encryption software] for free. The apps are merely a convenience."

Facebook and Apple have both said they already provide law enforcement agencies with information they can, where appropriate, but won't be weakening their encryption.

"Because of the way end-to-end encryption works, we can't read the contents of individual encrypted messages - but we do provide the information we can in response to valid law enforcement requests, consistent with applicable law and our policies," Facebook said in a statement last month, in response to other requests.

"Encryption technology has many legitimate uses - from protecting our online banking to keeping our photos safe. 

"It's also essential for journalists, NGO workers, human rights campaigners and others who need to know their messages will remain secure." 

Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten backed up Mr Turnbull's push to break the laws of mathematics, saying authorities needed "21st century weapons" to fight terrorism.