'Obviously dangerous': Labor doubles down on encryption bill with press freedom warning
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'Obviously dangerous': Labor doubles down on encryption bill with press freedom warning

The Labor Party has doubled down against the Morrison government's proposed anti-encryption laws, warning they are a "clear threat to press freedom" and "obviously dangerous", in what has become a major breakdown in bipartisanship on national security.

After revealing on Friday that Labor would not back the legislation in this final parliamentary sitting week of the year - as the government had demanded - shadow-attorney general Mark Dreyfus stepped up his attack on the bid to give law-enforcement authorities greater access to criminals' encrypted messages.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and Labor Leader Bill Shorten have drawn a line in the sand on national security.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and Labor Leader Bill Shorten have drawn a line in the sand on national security.Credit:Justin McManus

He warned hastily drafted laws could compel technology firms to allow authorities to access journalists' phones and reveal the identity of their sources.

"This is a clear threat to press freedom," Mr Dreyfus told Fairfax Media. "The government’s bill could force a tech company to write malware to break into a journalists’ phone, revealing the identity of their sources and the content of their communication.

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"There are concerns that the bill, in its unamended form, would allow this to be done without judicial oversight. This is obviously dangerous."

Mr Dreyfus - who would become the nation's first law officer if Labor wins next year's election - pointed to evidence from encryption developer and defence contractor Senetas at an inquiry on Friday.

The firm - which supplies technology to government agencies such as the tax office and the Australian Federal Police, as well as the major banks - warned the laws as drafted would create systemic weaknesses that could undermine national and civilian security.

"It compromises the security of citizens, businesses and governments because there will be weaker cybersecurity practices," Senetas chairman Francis Galbally told the inquiry.

"It will be easier for cyber criminals, terrorists, to target systems and be able to break into those systems, steal data or actually do something - control systems."

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton disputes claims the bill would endanger press freedom, arguing it modernises the way authorities can access information rather than granting them sweeping new powers.

A spokesman for Mr Dutton told Fairfax Media: "The bill does not expand the surveillance powers of agencies – including with respect to journalists.

"The provisions in the bill do not relate to the actual viewing of communications content or the actual collection of evidence.

"Rather, the provisions set out a legal framework for law enforcement to attain assistance from a communications or tech company to gather evidence where it would otherwise be inaccessible for technical reasons.

"As with current requirements, any actual evidence gathering, such as access to actual communications content, requires a warrant."

The government argues the bill must pass Parliament before Christmas given the need to access encrypted messages used by terrorists to plan attacks such as the Bourke Street incident in Melbourne last month.

The rare partisan clash over national security legislation sets up a debate in the final week of Parliament for the year in which the government will appeal to the crossbench to pass the laws as a matter of urgency.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said Labor Leader Bill Shorten had "ended any claim to bipartisanship on national security" and Mr Dreyfus was "pandering to the left-wing of his party".

But he also committed the government to "reasonable" amendments to the laws, including some proposed by Labor.

Paul Murphy, the chief executive of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, backed Labor's concerns about journalistic freedom in an era when reporters increasingly relied on encrypted communications to protect sources.

"The trust between a journalist and a confidential source that is essential to public interest journalism would be compromised," Mr Murphy said. "I can't see anything in this bill that offers any protection."

Michael Koziol is the immigration and legal affairs reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House

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