On 20 September 2018, the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon Peter Dutton MP, introduced the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 (the Bill) into the House of Representatives.
In his second reading speech, the Minister noted the Bill created a ‘package of reforms that strengthens the ability of Australia's law enforcement and national security agencies to deal with the challenges of encryption’.
The Attorney-General, the Hon Christian Porter MP, wrote to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (the Committee) referring the Bill for inquiry and report.
Conduct of the inquiry
The Committee announced the inquiry by media release on 21 September 2018 and invited submissions from interested members of the public by 12 October 2018.
The Committee received 105 submissions and 32 supplementary submissions, which are listed at Appendix A.
The Committee held public hearings on 19 October 2018 and 16, 26, 27 and 30 November 2018, in-camera hearings on 19 October 2018, and private briefings on 26 November 2018.
On 22 November 2018, the Committee received advice from the Minister for Home Affairs that there was an immediate need to provide agencies with additional powers and to pass the Bill in the last sitting week of 2018. The Minister noted that:
The situation has become more urgent in light of the recent fatal terrorist attack in Melbourne and the subsequent disruption of alleged planning for a mass casualty attack by three individuals …
I am gravely concerned that our agencies cannot rule out the possibility that others may also have been inspired by events in Melbourne to plan and execute attacks … This is particularly concerning as we approach Christmas and the New Year, which we know have been targeted previously by terrorists planning attacks against Australians gathered to enjoy the festive season …
For these reasons I ask that the committee accelerate its consideration of this vital piece of legislation to enable its passage by the parliament before it rises for the Christmas break.
Committee consideration of timing
In order to better inform itself of the immediate challenges faced by agencies, the Committee immediately scheduled additional briefings and public hearings with law enforcement and intelligence agencies. These briefings and hearings were held on 26 November 2018. The Committee took evidence from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police. The Committee also took evidence from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Commonwealth Ombudsman at a public hearing on 27 November 2018.
The Committee accepts that there is a genuine and immediate need for agencies to have tools to respond to the challenge of encrypted communications. The absence of these tools results in an escalation of risk and has been hampering agency investigations over several years. As the uptake of encrypted messaging applications increases, it is increasingly putting the community at risk from perpetrators of serious crimes who are able to evade detection.
Responding to these escalating risks, the Committee recommends that the Parliament give urgent consideration to the Bill and its immediate passage.
The next chapter presents the Committee’s recommendations regarding the Bill.