Australia has passed a controversial law designed to compel technology companies to grant police and security agencies access to encrypted messages on platforms like WhatsApp, prompting warnings from Facebook and other tech companies about the privacy risks involved in the move.
Australian lawmakers voted in favour of the Telecommunications Access and Assistance Bill late Thursday. The government said the new measures would help police and security agencies combat terror attacks and child sex crimes, the BBC reported.
Tech companies and civil liberties groups said it was a “dangerous overreach” that will affect a wide range of businesses and their customers.
The law was passed amid allegations of encrypted platforms facilitating the spread of rumours, hate speech and even criminal activities like child trafficking and drugs businesses.
The measures were rushed through Parliament on its final day of the year.
The Labour opposition said it had reluctantly supported the laws to help protect Australians during the Christmas period, but on Friday it said that “legitimate concerns” about them remained.
The Facebook spokesman had earlier said that the move would have “far-reaching consequences” for the privacy and security of encrypted platforms like WhatsApp and Google, and device manufacturers like Apple, Microsoft and Samsung.
The Digital Industry Group, a tech industry association, said the law raised “the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians’ data security at risk”.
“It is also deeply concerning that the minimum safeguards Australians should expect under such unprecedented new powers — judicial oversight and a warrant-based system — are absent,” the group said in a statement.
Australia already has laws which require providers to hand over a suspect’s communication to the police.
Under Australia’s legislation, the police can force companies to create a technical function that would give them access to encrypted messages without the user’s knowledge. If companies don’t comply with the laws, they risk being fined.
WhatsApp had earlier said in a statement that it cares deeply about the privacy of its users.
“WhatsApp cares deeply about the privacy of our users, and we remain committed to providing end-to-end encryption,” a company spokesperson said.
WhatsApp has challenged government attempts to curtail the use of end-to-end encryption in the past, notably in Brazil.