The logo for social media giant Facebook. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, FILE)
AUSTRALIA'S parliament yesterday passed a bill to force tech firms such as Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook and Apple to give police access to encrypted data, the most far-reaching such requirements imposed by a Western country.

The bill, staunchly opposed by the tech giants which fear Australia could be an example as other nations explore similar rules, is set to become law before the end of the year.

The bill, passed by the lower house of parliament earlier yesterday, was to be debated in the upper Senate, where the Labor Party said it intended to suggest new amendments, before going back to the lower house.

In an 11th-hour twist, Labor said that despite its reservations it would pass the bill in the Senate, on the proviso that the coalition agreed to its amendments next year.

“We will pass the legislation, inadequate as it is, so we can give our security agencies some of the tools they say they need,” Labor leader Bill Shorten said.

The bill provides for fines of up to A$10 million (R101.8m) for institutions and prison terms for individuals for failing to hand over data linked to suspected illegal activities.

When it becomes law, Australia will be one of the first nations to impose broad access requirements on technology firms, after many years of lobbying by intelligence and law enforcement agencies in many countries, particularly the so-called Five Eyes nations.

The Five Eyes intelligence network, comprising the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, have each warned that national security was at risk because authorities were unable to monitor the communications of suspects.

Australia's government has said the laws are needed to counter militant attacks and organised crime and that security agencies would need to seek warrants to access personal data.

Technology companies have opposed efforts to create what they see as a back door to users’ data, a stand-off that was propelled into the public arena by Apple's refusal to unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a 2015 shooting in California. The companies say creating tools for law enforcement to break encryption will inevitably undermine security for everyone.

Representatives of Google, Amazon and Apple were not available for comment after the Senate vote. Earlier, a Facebook spokesperson pointed to a statement made by the Digital Industry Group Inc (Digi), of which Facebook as well as Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter, are members.

“This legislation is out of step with surveillance and privacy legislation in Europe and other countries that have strong national security concerns,” it read. “Several critical issues remain unaddressed in this legislation, most significantly the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians’ data security at risk,” it said. Reuters