No Absolute Right to Privacy: Security Chiefs Call on Big Tech to Put the Brakes on Encryption

Australian law enforcement have stepped up moves to counteract online extremism after two stabbing incidents in Sydney.
No Absolute Right to Privacy: Security Chiefs Call on Big Tech to Put the Brakes on Encryption
A teenager uses her mobile phone to access social media in New York on Jan. 31, 2024. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Daniel Y. Teng

Australia’s top domestic spy chief and police commissioner will call on Big Tech to slow down the roll-out of more advanced encryption, encouraging tech firms to help counter online extremism.

In an upcoming address at the National Press Club in Canberra, Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO, and the equivalent of the FBI) will warn that comprehensive end-to-end encryption on messaging apps hampers criminal investigations.

Multiple messaging apps and websites, like WhatsApp, Signal, and ProtonMail, employ encryption to protect information sent by one user to another—it involves scrambling the data, sending it, and then for the authorised party to unscramble it upon receipt.

‘Encryption is Unaccountable’

Mr. Burgess will not call for an end to the roll-out of encryption, but will call on Big Tech firms to slow down.

“If the threat, evidence, safeguards, and oversight are strong enough for us to obtain a warrant, then they should be strong enough for the companies to help us give effect to that warrant. To make encryption accountable,” Mr. Burgess will say, in comments obtained by AAP before the delivery of the speech.

“Without their help in very limited and strictly controlled circumstances, encryption is unac­countable. In effect, unaccoun­table encryption is like building a safe room for terrorists and spies, a secure place where they can plot and plan.

“Imagine if there was a section of a city where violent extremists could gather with privacy and impunity. Imagine if they used this safe space to discuss terrorism and sabotage, and vilify Muslims, Jews, people of colour, and the LGBTQIA+ community. And imagine if the security service and police were stopped from entering that part of town to investigate and respond.”

The director-general will also disclose multiple extremist networks alleged to be using encrypted services.

“They use an encrypted chat platform to communicate with offshore extremists, sharing vile propaganda, posting tips about homemade weapons, and discussing how to provoke a race war,” he will say.

“Having lawful and targeted access to extremist communications would be much more effective and efficient, it would give us real-time visibility of their activities.”

Meanwhile, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Reece Kershaw will accuse social media platforms of “refusing to snuff out the social combustion.”

“Instead of putting out the embers on their platforms, their indifference and defiance is pouring accelerant on the flames,” he will say.

“If we consider the disinformation and misinformation from two shocking incidents in Sydney this month, and how that social combustion was propagated throughout the world, we see the consequences of that indifference and defiance.”

Musk Stands Firm Against Authorities

Mr. Kershaw’s comments come amid an ongoing war of words and a pending legal battle between tech billionaire Elon Musk and Australian authorities.

Mr. Musk has refused an order from the eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant to remove all content globally related to the alleged stabbing of an Assyrian Christian bishop in Sydney’s west—the incident has been deemed a “terrorist incident” by authorities, who also blame social media for inflaming radicalism.

X has removed content in Australia but has baulked at the notion of removing content globally saying that it is beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities.

Yet on April 22, the Federal Court handed down a two-day injunction on the social platform X for the removal of related content around the world.

Meanwhile, Australian politicians have delivered scathing rhetoric at the tech entrepreneur and Tesla founder.

“We'll do what is necessary to take this arrogant billionaire who thinks he is above the law, but also above common decency,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on April 23.
“What the eSafety commissioner is doing is doing her job to protect the interests of Australians.”

‘No Absolute Right to Privacy’: AFP

Meanwhile, Mr. Kershaw will say that Big Tech firms should refrain from transitioning to end-to-end encryption “until they can ensure their technology protects against online crime, rather than enabling it.”

“We recognise the role that technologies like end-to-end encryption play in protecting personal data, privacy, and cyber security, but there is no absolute right to privacy,” Mr. Kershaw will say.

“People have the right to privacy just like they have the right not to be harmed. People expect to have their privacy protected just like they expect police to do their job once a crime has been committed against them, or a loved one. That expectation includes being able to respond and bring offenders before the justice system.”

Andy Yen, CEO of Proton, has previously said he would not comply with any moves to break encryption of users.

“With the current eSafety proposals, the Internet as we know it faces a very real threat. The proposed standards would force online services—no matter whether they are end-to-end encrypted or not—to access, collect, and read their users’ private conversations,” he previously told The Epoch Times.
Further, organised crime syndicates use specific platforms, like the open-source Tor, that is outside the remit of known Big Tech organisations like Meta, Google, and X. It raises further questions over the scope and aim of law enforcement.

Australia Collaborating Internationally

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said the government was working with regulators and authorities in other countries to tackle the issue of encrypted platforms being used for extremism.

“National security agencies are deeply concerned about having the appropriate tools to do their jobs in order to keep Australians safe,” she told ABC radio.

“These are smart people who are working with agencies and with their counterparts around the world, to be able to do what is necessary ... to identify where there are harms emerging and bring people to justice.”

Daniel Y. Teng is based in Brisbane, Australia. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at [email protected].
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