The government in your phone

Published: 14 July 2017

Prime Minister Turnbull

Should the government have access to phones for security purposes?

Prime Minister Turnbull frustrated with his inability to crack down on criminals
 Image © 2017 AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Malcolm Turnbull insists there's nothing underhand about giving intelligence agencies greater powers to target the phones of terrorists.

Instead the prime minister says it's about extending the rule of law to "dark places" online.

The federal government plans to introduce draft laws to force international technology companies to unlock the encrypted messages of terrorists.

The legislation will also give intelligence agencies stronger powers to remotely conduct surveillance on the phones of jihadis and child abusers.

The government push follows the G20 Leaders summit in Germany where Australia led the way on discussions about encrypted technology.

An ability exists now to obtain information from telecommunications companies, but not internet companies such as Facebook or WhatsApp.

"We cannot allow the internet to be used as a place for terrorists and child molesters and people who peddle child pornography and drug traffickers to hide in the dark," Mr Turnbull told the Seven Network on Friday.

"Those dark places online must be illuminated by the law."

Mr Turnbull insists the government was not giving intelligence agencies "back doors or anything underhand".

Attorney-General George Brandis said the plan was to apply existing laws to new technology.

More than half of investigations by domestic intelligence agency ASIO now involved encrypted communications, compared to three per cent four years ago.

"This will be a universal phenomenon in a very short time," he told Sky News.

Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne is not expecting a fight from the tech giants.

"I think if (companies) do try and fight the government trying to protect Australians they'll be on the wrong side of the argument," he told Nine Network.


Department of Employment statement:

Cellebrite is a software product that is used during forensic investigations to extract data from mobile telephony devices, such as email, contacts, images, and text messages, under warrant. Investigations are to determine whether fraud has been committed against the Australian Government. While the Department of Employment does not comment on specific investigations, we can say that they are not internal.

Department of Human Services statement:

The department only uses specialist technology from Cellebrite for evidence collection during warrants for serious non-compliance and fraud cases. Warrants are issued by a Court in accordance with Section 3E of the Crimes Act 1914, and are executed on the department’s behalf by the Australian Federal Police.

Second Commissioner’s Statement: ATO digital forensic capability

I would like to reassure the community about the ATO’s use of digital forensic capability, following media reports today.

The ATO does not monitor taxpayers’ mobile phones or remotely access their mobile devices.

Circumstances where the ATO uses technology such as the Universal Forensic Extraction software provided by Cellebrite, is to support criminal investigations. For example, where assets such as laptops or mobile devices may contain information about activity related to suspected organised crime or alleged large scale promotion of aggressive tax schemes.

These assets would first need to be accessed following a court ordered warrant, where it is determined that material specifically relating to the court warrant is held on those assets. As this activity is conducted legally, and never involves remote access to a device, it is not correct to refer to it as ‘hacking’. Any use of software that may bypass the security lock of a phone, is conducted with the relevant legislative approval (primarily section 3E of the Crimes Act) or following written consent from the owner of the device.

We will continue to work with other enforcement agencies in supporting criminal investigations, including through use of Universal Forensic Extraction software.

Ramez Katf

Second Commissioner of Taxation and Chief Information Officer