New encryption powers to fight online child sex abuse networks

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has previously urged tech giants including Facebook and Apple not to redesign their applications to allow for end-to-end encryption in a way that denies law enforcement agencies access to the communications in serious criminal investigations.


The move by the Morrison government to consider additional encryption legislation comes as a new report by the Australian Institute of Criminology has identified 256 Australians who paid more than $1.3 million to livestream child abuse and rape from the Philippines.

Releasing the report at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission chief executive Michael Phelan and AUSTRAC chief executive Nicole Rose called for more powers to access sophisticated encryption on the dark web, which they said was being used by child-sex networks to escape detection.

Mr Kershaw said tech giants could do more to allow police to access the dark web, urging them to “let us in”.

“If I feel as though some companies are not co-operating, we’ll end up outing them and probably damaging their reputation,” he said.

“That’s one of the techniques law enforcement has used before, to say: ‘If you’re a company that’s going to be obstructionist with law enforcement and not help us out when it comes to protecting our children’ – then, again, all bets are off when it comes to that for us.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has been calling on the tech giants to give law enforcement agencies access to end-to-end encryption.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Kershaw said the “ever-increasing online exploitation of our children” was “society’s dark secret”.

He said those who sought to do harm were “deviant and perverted offenders with global reach who are using the dark web to evade law enforcement detection and commit heinous crimes against our most vulnerable”.

Just over a decade ago, the AFP received 300 referrals for online child exploitation material each year, but this number has now soared to almost 17,000. Ninety per cent of current Criminal Intelligence Commission investigations involve the use of some encrypted communications.

Mr Phelan said organised crime and child exploitation syndicates were using the dark web and encrypted technologies to obfuscate their identity and facilitate high-volume offending on a global scale.

He said new legislation could involve giving law enforcement agencies the ability to access particular communications by searching for key words and stripping out the offending material.

“We simply cannot see what these disruptive criminal groups are saying to each other,” he said.

“To address these escalating challenges, we need to be open to considering new and betters ways of countering this insidious business of crime.

“Simply put: right now our laws do not keep up with the technology.”


Ms Rose said it was a “sad indictment on our so-called civilised society” that one of the top priorities was combating child sex abuse.

“What is holding us back is legislation lagging behind technology,” she said.

The call for more encryption legislation comes as the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, James Renwick, is reviewing laws passed in Parliament in December 2018 which give agencies the power to issue orders to tech companies to help them gain access to encrypted messages.

It was also revealed on Wednesday that the Australian Federal Police dropped an investigation into whether Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s office forged documents, without interviewing him.

Mr Kershaw said he was not aware of the minister being interviewed before the AFP abandoned the investigation. Earlier this month, the AFP said the creation of fake documents to attack Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore involved a “low level of harm” and would require significant resources to pursue.

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