Under new legislation proposed by the Australian Government, messaging apps like WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage would be forced to hand over the contents of encrypted messages.
When challenged by a technology journalist over whether it was possible to tackle the problem of criminals using encryption – given that platform providers claim they are currently unable to break into the messages even if required to do so by law – the Prime Minister raised eyebrows as he made his reply.
“Well the laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia," he said.
“I’m not a cryptographer, but what we are seeking to do is to secure their assistance. They have to face up to their responsibility. They can’t just wash their hands of it and say it’s got nothing to do with them.”
Some took to Twitter to express their disquiet with Mr Turnbull’s apparent dismissal of the laws of mathematics, with some accusing him of being “Orwellian”.
But Mr Turnbull stressed during the press conference that he was asking for the companies to work with the Government to change their current systems.
“I am not going to get into hypotheticals. The important thing is to recognise the challenge and call on the companies for assistance.
“I am sure they know morally they should. Morally they should.
“They have to face up to their responsibility. They can’t just wash their hands of it and say it’s got nothing to do with us.”
Critics of WhatsApp – owned by Facebook – and other encrypted platforms says they provide the perfect hiding place for criminals because only the sender and the recipient can see the contents of the messages.
But George Brandis, the Australian Attorney General, said the UK security agency GCHQ has assured him it was possible to unlock encrypted systems.
Facebook has argued that weakening encryption for the purposes of law enforcement effectively means weakening the system for everyone, and would risk making the messages available to hackers and others with malevolent intent.
In a statement, Facebook said: “We appreciate the important work law enforcement does, and we understand the need to carry out investigations. That’s why we already have a protocol in place to respond to any requests we can.
“At the same time, weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone.”
Mr Turnbull said the proposed law was modelled on the UK’s controversial Investigatory Powers Act, which compels service providers to decrypt their supposedly private communications under certain circumstances.
The UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd is due to travel to the US in the next few weeks to hold talks with technology companies over the problem of how to tackle encryption and criminality.
Ms Rudd has previously called encryption “completely unacceptable”, while Prime Minister Theresa May has accused the internet giants of giving terrorists “safe spaces” to communicate.
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