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