Encrypted messaging on popular social media websites is hampering efforts to investigate extremists, according to police.
Encrypted messaging on popular social media websites is hampering efforts to investigate extremists, according to police.

Social media is hampering police investigations

Victorian police officers investigating dangerous extremists have warned their efforts to gather evidence are being hampered by social media giants including Facebook.

Victoria Police is now pushing for the federal government to toughen laws to crack encrypted communications and enable easy access to information from online platforms.

The force has told a federal parliamentary inquiry into extremism of their struggles obtaining "evidentiary material" through the "onerous" process to deal overseas social media companies including Facebook and Twitter.

And they have received the backing of the Department of Home Affairs, which said voluntary reporting mechanisms for social media giants had "proven unsuccessful".

"We must provide the framework and set expectations for how digital industry is required to operate, in a way which puts community safety at the forefront of technology and design," it said.

Australia's spy agency also warned that the online environment enabled "unrestricted access to online propaganda, instructional material and extremist discussion - which potentially strengthens intent and builds capability to undertake terrorist attacks".

In its submission, Victoria Police said officers also faced "potential issues at court with continuity and accuracy" of the social media posts that were handed over.

It noted that other countries had enacted treaties which allowed for "direct engagement and reception of evidence from social media platforms".

Victoria Police encouraged commonwealth reforms to tackle encrypted apps, saying that was the "primary method of communication for most extremist groups and individuals".

"The ability of law enforcement agencies to access encrypted applications will therefore be important to disrupt the activities of all violent extremists," the submission said.

It suggested agreements with app developers to access data under "certain public safety conditions", as well as enhancing the technical capacity for undercover police and intelligence officers to operate online and penetrate extremist groups.

In its submission, Victoria Police also revealed intelligence indicated extremist groups had exploited the pandemic to "validate long-held hostilities toward particular identity groups and systems".

It said COVID-19 had been a recruiting tool for far right extremists, who linked anti-vaccination and anti-authority conspiracy theories with "white supremacist ideologies".

Far left groups had also been encouraging "unlawful activity" during the pandemic, the force said.

"Their willingness to flout government restrictions for 'the greater good' has already been evident in Victoria, with protest activity occurring despite warnings that it represented a breach in emergency COVID restrictions and that participants would be fined," the submission said.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation issued a similar warning in its submission. It also said Australia was still being specifically mentioned in pro-Islamic State propaganda.


Originally published as How social media is hampering police investigations