Sydney, 5 December 2018: Comments by Communications Alliance CEO, John Stanton:

Technical Assistance Notices

“As Government and Labor MPs work today to craft amendments to the Assistance and Access Bill, it appears that one of the biggest flaws in the proposed legislation will not be addressed.

“Commentary from the major parties over the past 24 hours has focussed on putting some additional safeguards around Technical Capability Notices (TCNs). TCNs can be used to order communications providers to perform a range of tasks, including removing electronic protections from networks or devices, installing and maintaining software (such as malware and spyware) and concealing the fact that services have been altered, or even substituted.

“Significantly, the acts that can be ordered include the items on the long list at section 317E of the existing Bill – but are not limited to what is on the list

“Importantly, however, it appears that nothing will be done to limit the powers available to agencies via Technical Assistance Notices (TANs), which are just as dangerous as TCNs but operate with much less oversight and with fewer protections.

“TANs can be used for exactly the same purposes as TCNs – the same list of actions, and more, as specified in section 317L(3) of the existing Bill, but TANs:
- do not require any approval by the Attorney-General;
- do not require any consultation period with the communications provider and thus can take immediate effect; and
- can be issued, and subsequently varied by delegated officers within enforcement agencies, not just by the head of that agency.

“While the draft Explanatory Memorandum seeks to distinguish between what can be required under TCNs as opposed to TANs, this is not reflected in the proposed legislation.

“Tighter controls on TCNs are welcome – albeit we have not yet seen the detail of what is proposed. It seems so far unclear, for example, whether a “dispute” that would trigger an independent review of a TCN is a dispute between an agency and a communications provider, or a dispute between the Attorney-General and the Minister for Communications. The latter scenario offers little or no protection to the communications provider or its customers.

“There is a real risk that while much is being made of additional protections around TCNs, agencies will simply exploit this loophole in the Bill to direct their activities via TANs instead.

“Any agreed amendments to the Bill need to close this loophole.

“Numerous industry groups, including Communications Alliance, have highlighted this problem in testimony before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS). It needs to be addressed urgently before any legislation is returned to Parliament.

Systemic Weakness Definition

“We are waiting to see what emerges from the attempts to agree a definition of what constitutes a ‘systemic weakness’ or ‘back door’ – something the Bill purports to prohibit.

“A reported statement from the Attorney-General as to Government thinking about this definition is disturbing.

“The Attorney General is reported overnight to have, at a press conference, described a systemic weakness as: “a weakness that would affect all applications on all devices at any given single point in time."

“Such a narrow definition would leave the door open to damaging consequences.

“For example, under the proposed definition, if an agency ordered a communications provider to install spyware on every smartphone they sold in, say, the State of Victoria, this act would introduce enormous vulnerabilities and risk to millions of Australians, but would not be serious enough to classify as a systemic weakness.”

“Equally, if a smartphone manufacturer was ordered to install spyware that was triggered on any device that selected a specific language when being set-up by the user, this would also not be identified as a systemic weakness or back-door.

Communications Alliance is the primary communications industry body in Australia. Its membership is drawn from a wide cross-section of the communications industry, including carriers, carriage and internet service providers, content providers, platform providers, equipment vendors, IT companies, consultants and business groups.

Its vision is to be the most influential association in Australian communications, co-operatively initiating programs that promote sustainable industry development, innovation and growth, while generating positive outcomes for customers and society. 

The prime mission of Communications Alliance is to create a co-operative stakeholder environment that allows the industry to take the lead on initiatives which grow the Australian communications industry, enhance the connectivity of all Australians and foster the highest standards of business behaviour.  For more details about Communications Alliance, see

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Aprille Lim
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