The powers were granted under a new decryption law which was rushed through parliament in December amid fierce debate, and was seen as the latest salvo between governments and tech firms over national security and privacy.
Two months later, the Australian Federal Police have revealed that agents have already used it while investigating drug trafficking and child exploitation. Under the fresh rules, refusal to grant authorities access to devices is punishable with up to 10 years in prison, and police told a parliamentary inquiry they had used that threat to compel two suspects to hand over their passwords.
Citing secrecy provisions in the law, police declined to say if they had used the new law to force device makers or telecommunications firms -- including global giants like Apple -- to break or bypass encrypted communications.
The same provisions bar industry from disclosing whether they have received such police demands, known as "compulsory notices".
The government has argued the law was urgently needed to foil ongoing terrorist plots and intercept communications among other serious criminals. But opponents allege it punches a hole in global efforts to keep governments from eavesdropping on secure communications, like WhatsApp chats.
They also argue it could undermine security by creating vulnerabilities in encryption technologies, which could then be exploited by malicious actors.
The legislation was adopted only after the conservative government agreed to reopen debate in the new year on amendments that would address widespread concerns among civil liberties advocates and tech industry experts that it was ill-conceived and too broad.
The Department of Home Affairs says the law is being progressively implemented and that in January it wrote to tech industry members for assistance in drawing up guidelines on how to use the new powers.
"The Department is also engaging with industry to dispel common misconception, build confidence and to reiterate the intended purpose and operation of the Act," it said in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry. But the tech industry appears far from reassured.
"There is no doubt there is an extremely broad coalition of stakeholders that are very concerned about the impact of this bill," said John Stanton, chief executive of the Communications Alliance, which represents the Australian communications industry.
"It is not just industry, it is civil society and digital rights activists (too)." Stanton warned the new law posed "an enormous threat" to export opportunities for Australian tech firms "because they can no longer provide any assurance that their gear hasn't been tampered with by Australian security".
"Even to say, 'no, it hasn't', is an offence" under the law," he added.
Industry groups have combined forces to present a joint submission to the latest inquiry proposing a series of amendments.
These include a higher threshold for using the law, which can currently be applied in any investigation of an offence carrying a maximum three-year jail term -- a bar critics say is too low.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)