The head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is frustrated technology companies aren't co-operating more with the spy agency's demands for user information.
Speaking on the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s (IPAA) Work with Purpose podcast, director-general of ASIO, Mike Burgess, said proponents of encryption technologies are acting outside existing social norms.
“As a society, whether we know it or not, we've accepted the fact that the police or ASIO can get a warrant to bug someone's car or someone's house,” Burgess said.
“Why should cyberspace be any different?
“Yet every time we have these conversations with the private sector companies, they kind of push back and say, ‘no, we're not so sure about that’.”
Referring specifically to encrypted communications on platforms like WhatsApp, Burgess said private conversations are “actually a good thing” for our society.
“The real challenge comes when you have a lawful need,” Burgess said.
“So the police are investigating something, or ASIO is investigating something, and they've got a warrant and they want to get access, [but] those providers actually refuse to actually cooperate with governments.
“That's a problem for me because as societies – especially democratic societies – we understand we operate within the rule of law.”
The ASIO head echoed the words of Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, who has repeatedly railed against companies like Facebook for championing inexpensive, consumer-level encrypted communications.
Dutton called Mark Zuckerberg “morally bankrupt” last year, blaming the Facebook CEO – and other technology giants – for an increase in reported cases of child exploitation material shared online.
“Are they forgetting the millions of children who will never be kept safe when end-to-end encryption is adopted as standard practice?” Dutton told the Global Summit to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation in December.
Zuckerberg has defended his plans to improve Facebook’s end-to-end encryption by citing “heavy-handed government intervention” as an increasing privacy threat.
But Burgess dismissed the notion of government overreach, in an Australian context, as “nonsense”.
“We ask for laws that are proportionate to the threat we're dealing with, and actually ASIO is subject to independent oversight,” Burgess told the Work with Purpose podcast.
“With the appropriate oversight and the appropriate laws, I don't support private sector companies who want to fight governments to say, ‘No, we can't give you [this],’ or, ‘We can't cooperate with you’.”
Burgess’ open irritation comes three weeks after the FBI had a public spat with Apple over the company’s refusal to unlock the iPhone of a shooter who killed three members of the US Navy in a terrorist attack on the Penascola Naval Air Station last December.
The FBI eventually cracked the shooter’s devices, but not after spending “large sums of tax-payer dollars,” according to US attorney-general William Barr, who called Apple’s persistent focus on consumer privacy “unacceptable”.
“Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable, but not at all costs,” Barr said.
“There is no reason why companies like Apple cannot design their consumer products and apps to allow for court-authorised access by law enforcement, while maintaining very high standards of data security.”
The Australian government has tried to improve its ability to bypass encryption through the Assistance and Access Act – commonly known as the ‘Encryption Act’– that was rushed through parliament late in 2018.
The Act allows for government agencies to provide “technical assistance notices” to companies – and their employees – compelling them to help investigators access encrypted data.
Since its passing, the Act has been criticised by Australia’s technology community and the opposition which recently tried to drum up support for amendments to the legislation that it helped pass in the first place.