You may be be­ing watched, but you’ll never know, writes

APC Australia - - Contents - Shaun Prescott.

Shaun Prescott writes on the things that mat­ter in tech

Last month, Aus­tralia be­came the first coun­try in the world to leg­is­late the re­quire­ment for tech com­pa­nies to pro­vide back­door ac­cess to en­crypted mes­sages. More specif­i­cally, the law will al­low po­lice and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to se­lec­tively tar­get users – pre­sum­ably sus­pects of crime – via en­cryp­tion back­doors. Po­lice have long called upon tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies trad­ing in en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tion to help with ac­cess, but now, in Aus­tralia, they must.

As an ex­am­ple: if Aus­tralian po­lice or in­tel­li­gence wants to ac­cess Joe Blogs’ mes­sag­ing history on Face­book, Face­book will be re­quired, un­der Aus­tralian law, to ei­ther help the po­lice ac­cess these mes­sages, or else, hin­der the en­cryp­tion in or­der for the po­lice to more read­ily ac­cess what they need.

De­spite months and years of lip ser­vice, Bill Shorten’s La­bor party al­lowed the Coali­tion’s bill to pass with no changes. Lawyers, and ad­vo­cates for pri­vacy and in­ter­net free­dom are nat­u­rally un­nerved; not only does it sig­nal an un­prece­dented amount of state ac­cess to in­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vices, but it’s also abun­dantly ob­vi­ous that no Aus­tralian politi­cian re­ally un­der­stands what en­cryp­tion is.

“The laws of math­e­mat­ics are very com­mend­able,” for­mer prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull said last year, “but the only laws that ap­ply in Aus­tralia is the law of Aus­tralia.”

As al­ways, the loom­ing, ever-present threat of ter­ror­ists was the stated mo­tive for pass­ing this bill. What Turn­bull and un­doubt­edly Mor­ri­son – not to men­tion more qual­i­fied politi­cians – don’t seem to un­der­stand, is that one does not sim­ply bur­row a hole through en­cryp­tion. Dur­ing a se­nate hear­ing last month, Fran­cis Gal­bally, a chair­man of en­cryp­tion com­pany Sene­tas, ex­plained that mak­ing changes to one as­pect of a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vice’s en­cryp­tion can have a dire rip­ple ef­fect. “The bill, should it be­come law, will pro­foundly un­der­mine the rep­u­ta­tions of Aus­tralian soft­ware de­vel­op­ers and hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers in in­ter­na­tional mar­kets,” he said.

But it’s the thought that counts, right? And any­way, what does it all mean for us lowly cit­i­zens? Well, from mo­ment-to-mo­ment, not much. If the po­lice de­cide they want to ac­cess our mes­sages we won’t know if they’ve done so. For that mat­ter, if po­lice or in­tel­li­gence de­cides it wants to ac­cess a politi­cian’s mes­sages, they won’t know ei­ther. There’s the po­ten­tial for se­cu­rity as a whole to be re­duced, as de­signed weak­nesses built es­pe­cially for one per­son, might fall prey to hack­ers or ter­ror­ists. In an age when a hacked Twit­ter ac­count mes­sage can lead to a stock mar­ket crash, it’s not very re­as­sur­ing.

As for com­pa­nies like What­sApp, Face­book, Sig­nal, and more – if they want to con­tinue op­er­at­ing in Aus­tralia they’ll need to com­ply. And more than likely, they will. But Aus­tralia isn’t a huge pri­or­ity mar­ket in the global scheme of things, so it’s very pos­si­ble that fu­ture apps and ser­vices will just avoid the re­gion al­to­gether.

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