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The Australian government's Assistance and Access bill is an attempt to try to force tech companies to create backdoors into their encrypted communications. But one company that won't comply is Signal.

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The Signal private messenger app (download on iOS and Android) offers its users a way to send and receive secure, encrypted SMS messages and voice and video calls. But the company, Signal Messenger, says it has no access to the actual encryption keys used to protect such conversations. And Signal is citing that as one reason why it cannot submit to the government's demands for a backdoor as outlined in the Assistance and Access bill.

"By design, Signal does not have a record of your contacts, social graph, conversation list, location, user avatar, user profile name, group memberships, group titles, or group avatars," the company said in a new blog post. "The end-to-end encrypted contents of every message and voice/video call are protected by keys that are entirely inaccessible to us. In most cases now we don't even have access to who is messaging whom."

Attempts by governments and law enforcement officials to gain backdoor access into secure communications and devices is nothing new. Apple, Google, BlackBerry and other tech players have faced the same challenge. Officials demanding this type of access often argue that it's necessary to help them combat terrorism and other criminal activity. Technology companies and other critics counter by saying that backdoors would undermine the privacy and security of the platforms and their users. And most companies say they have no access to the encryption keys that would allow them to decrypt private communications.

Since its recent passage, the Assistance and Access bill has generated strong criticism from the technology industry. The Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition of such companies as Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, called the bill "deeply flawed, overly broad, and lacking in adequate independent oversight over the new authorities" and has urged the Australian Parliament to address these flaws.

In its blog post, Signal called the bill an attempt to "roll back the clock on security improvements which have massively benefited Australia and the entire global community" and labeled it a "disappointing development."

By refusing to include a backdoor in its app, Signal said that the government could try to block its service or limit access. But the company noted that such a strategy doesn't necessarily work as users simply turn to VPNs and other methods to get past the restrictions. Signal cited another effect the bill could have on users in Australia.

"One of the myriad ways that the 'Assistance and Access' bill is particularly terrible lies in its potential to isolate Australians from the services that they depend on and use every day," Signal said. "Over time, users may find that a growing number of apps no longer behave as expected. New apps might never launch in Australia at all."

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Takeaways

  1. Signal says it can't comply with a bill passed by Australian government that would demand a backdoor into encrypted communications as the company has no access to the encryption keys.
  2. The Assistance and Access bill has generated criticism by Signal and other tech companies, with concerns that the is bill flawed and overly broad.

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Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books - "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time" and "Teach Yourself VISUALLY LinkedIn."