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Apple sends top executives to lobby Australian government over proposed encryption laws

Apple has sent top privacy executives to Australia twice over the past month to discuss proposed cybersecurity laws that could compel technology companies to provide law enforcement agencies access to encrypted customer messages.

Citing unnamed sources, The Sydney Morning Herald reports Apple met with Australian Attorney-General George Brandis and members of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government on Tuesday to talk over the cybersecurity measures.

At least one of the engagements was announced on Monday, when Brandis said he planned to meet with Apple executives in hopes of persuading the company to share encrypted data with the country's spy and law enforcement agencies.

According to sources familiar with the talks, Apple maintained its strong stance in favor of consumer privacy, saying it does not want to see laws updated to block companies from using encryption technology, the report said. Further, Apple is opposed to furnishing government agencies with cryptographic keys that would allow access to secure messages.

Apple in its meetings with Australian officials looked to cut down on additional regulation and legal obligations that could potentially result from the new laws, sources said.

Turnbull last week proposed a set of updated cybersecurity laws that would force tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to provide access end-to-end encrypted communications if obliged to do so by court order. The regulations, which the Turnbull administration is looking to get on the books by year's end, are modeled after the UK's Investigatory Powers Act.

"We've got a real problem in that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly unable to find out what terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile rings are up to because of the very high levels of encryption," Turnbull said. "Where we can compel it, we will, but we will need the cooperation from the tech companies."

Exactly how the government intends to enforce the proposed rules remains unclear.

End-to-end encryption systems rely on cryptographic keys to encrypt plain text messages as they travel through servers between devices. Importantly, service providers do not have access to private keys and are therefore unable to access conversations.

Members of Turnbull's administration who met with Apple said the government does not want to create backdoors to messaging services, nor does it want to weaken encryption, sources said. Apple's recent meetings were in part meant help the government decide how best to overcome these substantial technical hurdles, the report said.