Swiss company provides its users’ personal information

Protonmail, an end-to-end encrypted secure email provider based in Switzerland, was recently obligated by a Swiss Court order to provide a certain class of user’s IP addresses to French police via the transnational Europol law enforcement agency.  This article considers the Australian statutory perspective on obtaining access to ‘encrypted’ data where such information may be contained within end-to-end encrypted communications.

Legislative foundation for accessing encrypted information

It may be the case that similar, encrypted email or instant message platforms in Australia may be susceptible to Court orders much like Protonmail.  Recently, Dundas Lawyers published an article on the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2021 (Bill) which is linked here.  That article highlighted how the Bill could be used to access various types of personal information, including data contained in encrypted messages and emails.  Therefore, in Australia there exists avenues through which the government, through the Australian Federal Police or the Australian Crime Commission (as discussed in our earlier article on the passing of the Surveillance Legislation), can access and obtain control of encrypted personal or business communications.  The parallels between Australian law and the circumstance involving Protonmail are clear.

 

Notwithstanding the newly enacted Bill, there exists a slightly older amendment to statutes providing for governmental intervention in personal or business communications.  The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018  provides for this possibility by amending the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) (Act), among other acts.  The Act generally operates in relation to the providers of telecommunication services and may obligate such providers to provide information to government agencies.

 

The primary function of the amendments was to provide law enforcement and intelligence agencies with the power to make ‘technical assistance requests’,[1] ‘technical assistance notices’[2] and ‘technical capability notices’.[3]  In providing this authority, the Act acknowledges that various enforcement agencies were hampered in their ability to carry out their expected functions as a result of their limited technical capacity to do so.  Often, targets of investigations were capable of usurping scrutiny because their communications were encrypted end-to-end.

 

It’s worth noting that a broad prohibition against the dissemination of any information retrieved subject to, amongst other things, a technical assistance notice, a technical capability notice or a technical assistance request.[4]  That encrypted information can be accessed by the government appears inevitable in certain circumstances, but it does not necessarily follow that the information accessed will enter the public domain.  The legislation takes appropriate steps to safeguard against this possibility.

Takeaways

It appears that the situation in Switzerland with Protonmail is entirely replicable under Australian statute.  Whilst only two (2) avenues have been identified in this article as to how such governmental access could be facilitated, there may be further avenues open to government bodies allowing them access to personal or professional end-to-end encrypted information.  Thus, Australian businesses need to be aware that legislation has adapted to overcome the barrier presented by end-to-end encryption.  Reasonable checks and balances are in place the ensure that a requirement to provide such information is not unjust, but this does not derogate from the reality that encryption is no longer a safe haven for private, electronically communicated messages.  It follows then, that persons and corporations may, in certain circumstances, consider using non-electronic communication means in respect ultra-sensitive information.

Links and further references

Related articles

Government surveillance bill passed by Parliament

De-encryption laws to make tech giants cooperate with law enforcement

Legislation

Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2021

Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth)

Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018

Further information

If you are a business and need advice on accessing encrypted data contact us for a confidential and obligation free discussion:

Malcolm Burrows B.Bus.,MBA.,LL.B.,LL.M.,MQLS.

Legal Practice Director

Telephone: (07) 3221 0013 (preferred)

Mobile: 0419 726 535

e: mburrows@dundaslawyers.com.au

 

Disclaimer

This article contains general commentary only.  You should not rely on the commentary as legal advice.  Specific legal advice should be obtained to ascertain how the law applies to your particular circumstances.

[1] Act s 317G

[2] Act s 317L.

[3] Act s 317T.

[4] Act s 317ZF.

 

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