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Shaun Prescott can’t help but shake his head over the con­tin­u­ing gov­ern­ment push to ob­tain back­doors to en­crypted sys­tems.

APC Australia - - Contents -

Politi­cians still clue­less when it comes to tech

The Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment is still hell-bent on gain­ing ac­cess to heav­ily-en­crypted mes­sag­ing ser­vices such as What­sApp, with the an­nounce­ment of new laws that will re­quire com­pa­nies to hand over en­crypted data if nec­es­sary. While it’s a step back from the ear­lier pro­posed leg­is­la­tion, which would have re­quired a back­door to be in­stalled in any en­crypted mes­sag­ing soft­ware used in the coun­try, the ques­tion of whether the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment even ac­tu­ally un­der­stands what it’s do­ing is an­other prob­lem en­tirely.

Chief among those in par­lia­ment who ap­pear to have a lack of knowl­edge around en­cryp­tion is the PM him­self, who caused quite a stir last month dur­ing a press con­fer­ence when the laws were an­nounced. When asked how the gov­ern­ment hopes to deal with en­crypted data that of­ten not even plat­form-hold­ers are ca­pa­ble of de­ci­pher­ing, the ex-OzE­mail chair­man had this to say: “Well, the laws of Aus­tralia pre­vail in Aus­tralia, I can as­sure you of that.” Turn­bull con­tin­ued: “I’m not a cryp­tog­ra­pher, but what we are seek­ing to do is to se­cure their as­sis­tance. They have to face up to their re­spon­si­bil­ity. They can’t just wash their hands of it and say it’s got noth­ing to do with them.”

The prob­lem with this is that the Aus­tralian law isn’t a su­per­nat­u­ral force ca­pa­ble of solv­ing en­dur­ing cryp­tog­ra­phy chal­lenges that mere hu­man ge­niuses can­not. And while Turn­bull’s com­ments may just be mere blus­ter, it does demon­strate how obliv­i­ous most Aussie politi­cians are in the field of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy. You only need look at how the NBN roll­out has tran­spired over the years.

Per­haps sens­ing that he sounded like a bit of a dolt, Turn­bull later said that he hoped on moral grounds that com­pa­nies us­ing en­cryp­tion would as­sist the gov­ern­ment. “I am not go­ing to get into hy­po­thet­i­cals. The im­por­tant thing is to recog­nise the chal­lenge and call on the com­pa­nies for as­sis­tance. I am sure they know morally they should. ... They have to face up to their re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he said.

Whether you agree that gov­ern­ments should be able to re­quest ac­cess to en­crypted mes­sages is some­what be­side the point. While Turn­bull and his col­leagues on both sides of the aisle can’t be ex­pected to know all the in­tri­ca­cies of com­pli­cated mat­ters such as en­cryp­tion, they should know enough to speak con­fi­dently about it in front of jour­nal­ists. And they should know enough to con­fi­dently cre­ate pol­icy around it. Hav­ing met with strong re­sis­tance to the ‘com­mon back­door’ ap­proach to ac­cess­ing en­crypted plat­forms, the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to fit an anvil-shaped block through a tiny cir­cu­lar straw.

There is hope that the me­dia’s sham­ing of Turn­bull for his blus­ter will force him to, maybe, read a book or talk to an ex­pert. But let’s wait and see.

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