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Australia vows to challenge Facebook, Google over encrypted messages

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned encrypted messages were being used for organized criminal activity. But leading internet firms aim to protect their promise of user confidentiality.

The Australian government has proposed a new legislation Friday which could give law enforcement agencies access to encrypted messages sent by suspected terrorists and criminals.

Modeled around Britain's Investigatory Powers Act passed in November, Australian authorities will hold companies like Google and Facebook to the same account as internet firms. This measure will the tech giants them to hand over encrypted information. Attorney-General George Brandis branded the encrypted platforms as "potentially the greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability that we have seen in our life time."

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on cooperation from the tech companies in Silicon Valley, who have so far refused to cave in to pressure from several western nations.

"We need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities from the law," the country's Prime Minister told reporters.

"The Australian Federal Police must have the powers - as do all our other intelligence and law enforcement agencies - to enforce the law online as well as offline," he added. If the bill is passed by the end of the year, tech companies will be asked to unlock and decode encrypted messages under the power of the law.

Last month, Turnbull had met with officials from the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Canada to pressure leading tech companies to share encrypted messages of potential criminals. Australia has witnessed a number of lone-wolf terrorist attacks, which have prompted a review of police tactics. Said Turnbull: "The privacy of a terrorist can never be more important than public safety - never."

The US government last year locked horns in a legal battle with Apple, seeking to compel the iPhone maker to help decrypt a device used by one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shooting rampage.

Authorities eventually dropped the case after finding a way to break into the iPhone without Apple's help. Turnbull admitted it may be difficult to enforce the laws if firms do not comply, but said it was important to "recognise the challenge and call on those companies to provide the assistance."

rd/bb (AFP/DPA)

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