Australian law enforcement agencies will soon be able to snoop on encrypted messages after the federal government and Labor agreed to tough new anti-terror laws.
The laws, which will pass parliament this week, are designed to help security agencies nab terrorists, child sex offenders and other serious criminals communicating on encrypted applications like WhatsApp.
"Without these measures, it is incredibly difficult to keep Australians safe from terrorists and organised criminals," Attorney-General Christian Porter told the Seven Network on Wednesday.
"If we can't get into the conversations of terrorists plotting to do Australians harm, then we can't keep Australians safe."
National security advisor Alastair MacGibbon said authorities had been able to intercept telecommunications lawfully for almost 40 years.
"But in the last several years they've been what they say going blind or going deaf because of encryption and the use of modern technologies," Ms MacGibbon told the ABC.
"What this law does is help codify a conversation between police and telecommunication companies, that has to be reasonable, has to be proportionate, and has to be technically feasible, but it's to work with those companies to help fight crime."
The attorney-general said police and national security agencies would still require a warrant to access the encrypted messages.
"All this legislation does is request - and if they decline, require - the tech companies to assist us in making good on the warrant," Mr Porter said.
"This is used incredibly selectively and only against the most serious targets who mean to do great harm to Australians."
More than 95 per cent of people being surveilled by security agencies use encrypted messages.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus conceded the draft laws were far from perfect and there were likely to be significant outstanding issues.
"But this compromise will deliver security and enforcement agencies the powers they say they need over the Christmas period, and ensure adequate oversight and safeguards," Mr Dreyfus said on Tuesday.
Under pressure from Labor, the bill will now include further scrutiny of the laws in 2019, limiting the powers to only "serious offences" and defining the term "systemic weakness".
The opposition gave way on wanting to remove state police from the bill and on having an authorisation process the government said would have been too slow.
Companies will soon be forced to build a new function to help police access data or face a fine.
The attorney-general and communications minister would need to authorise such a demand, and where there was a dispute over whether a notice would create a systemic weakness, this would be determined by a former judge and a technical expert.
© AAP 2018 Photo credit: AAP Image/Dave Hunt