Setting out sweeping new laws that look to pit the federal government and security agencies against US tech companies Apple and Facebook, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the laws of Australia take precedence over the laws of mathematics.
The statement came during an exchange with a technology journalist at a Sydney press conference on Friday, after Turnbull had laid out government plans that seek to give police agencies access to encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) and iMessage through a warrant.
Turnbull was asked by ZDNet's Asha McLean about the mathematical feasibility for the tech companies to break encryption when asked to.
McLean: Won't the laws of mathematics trump the laws of Australia? And then aren't you also forcing people onto decentralised systems as a result?
Turnbull: Well, the laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.
People were left a little stunned.
It came as Turnbull and attorney-general George Brandis announced the government's new plans to clamp down on end-to-end encryption during a Friday media blitz, but without detail about what it's requiring the companies to do, or the consequences for the companies if they don't comply.
"I am not going to get into hypotheticals," Turnbull said. "The important thing is to recognise the challenge and call on the companies for assistance.
"I am sure they know morally they should. Morally they should."
Facebook and Apple, the two companies most commonly mentioned during the government's pitch for the encryption plans, did not comment publicly on Friday about what they will do in the face of the new laws.
Famously, Apple fought back against US federal investigators over the issue of encryption, refusing to break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino's shooters.
At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: "In today’s digital world, the 'key' to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it.
"Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge."
A spokesperson for Apple in Australia referred BuzzFeed News to Tim Cook's previous statements on the importance of not breaking its encryption services.
In the same vein, a spokesperson for Facebook in Australia released a statement holding its line against any weakening of encryption services.
“We appreciate the important work law enforcement does, and we understand their need to carry out investigations," it read. "That's why we already have a protocol in place to respond to requests where we can."
"At the same time, weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone.”
But the prime minister made it clear that putting the onus on tech companies to come up with solution will result in encryption being broken for the security agencies.
"They have to face up to their responsibility," Turnbull said. "They can't just wash their hands of it and say it's got nothing to do with us."
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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