Facebook, Google to hand over encrypted data about terror suspects under new laws

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SOCIAL media giants will be forced by the government to decrypt messages between terrorism suspects amid fears they are allowing attacks to be plotted in secret online.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will on Friday announce tough new laws to compel Facebook, Google and other technology companies to co-operate and hand over data in urgent counter-terror operations.

The Herald Sun can reveal online encryption has hindered more than 90 per cent of high-priority inquiries by Australia’s spy agency.

Just last month it hampered more than 60 federal police operations involving terror and organised crime.

Security agencies will also get new powers enabling them to use surveillance technology to spy on suspects through their devices, potentially allowing them to track encrypted chats in real-time.

“Encryption is vital for information security, but the privacy of a terrorist must never trump the personal security of Australians,” Mr Turnbull told the Herald Sun.

Mr Turnbull said: “We cannot allow the internet to be an ungoverned space.”

In one alarming case, it took hundreds of hours for authorities to identify a social media user being groomed by overseas extremists to launch an attack in Australia.

Evidence of planning for a terrorist attack was uncovered once the person’s online account was cracked.

Of online intelligence the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation intercepts, more than 55 per cent is encrypted; in 2013, just 3 per cent was encrypted.

And two-thirds of data obtained by the AFP is also protected by encryption, which can take months to crack.

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis warned that criminals’ widespread use of encrypted apps was “potentially the most significant degradation of intelligence capability in modern times”.

Australia’s most notorious Islamic State terrorist, Neil Prakash, used secure messaging app Telegram to encourage attacks in Victoria.

It took a week for British security agencies to find hidden messages from Prakash — which related to the Anzac Day plot to kill police — on the phone of a British teen.

Telegram has also been used by terrorists responsible for attacks in Europe, including the shocking murder of 130 people in Paris in 2015.

Mr Turnbull urged a stronger global approach to encryption at last week’s G20 meeting of world leaders, resulting in a joint message demanding that technology giants provide security agencies with access to information relevant to terrorist threats.

“Australia is playing a leading role in ensuring that terrorists cannot evade authorities, whether they are online or off,” the PM said.

“We want to work with industry to solve this problem … My first priority is to keep Australians safe, and that’s why I’m committed to this long-term challenge.”

Privacy advocates have raised concerns about whether the government would force social media companies to create a “back door” to apps so authorities could see people’s communications. But it is understood the government will not mandate how the companies co-operate, leaving it up to them to decide how to decrypt data when authorities have obtained a warrant.

The government plans to introduce legislation into parliament later this year.

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