Na­tional se­cu­rity is a gov­ern­ment strength – so La­bor will let them be reck­less with it

The Guardian Australia - - News / Politics / World News - Scott Lud­lam

For a mo­ment, there was a blast of fresh air across the suf­fo­cat­ing waste­land of na­tional se­cu­rity pol­i­tics in Aus­tralia. Just as quickly, the win­dow was slammed shut, as the bone­less medi­ocrity of the La­bor lead­er­ship re­verted to type.

Here is the script we’re all trapped in.

In two crisp sen­tences on an In­sid­ers panel, News Corp colum­nist Niki Savva ex­pressed ev­ery­thing that’s wrong with how the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal classes deal with the strands of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism creep­ing into Aus­tralian life. Host Bar­rie Cas­sidy threw her a ques­tion on the fate of the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and Other Leg­is­la­tion (As­sis­tance and Ac­cess) Bill 2018 – that’s the gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal to tar­get and weaken the cryp­tog­ra­phy stan­dards that pro­vide for pri­vacy and se­cu­rity on­line.

Cas­sidy: Do you get the feel­ing that in the end, La­bor will fall in line with this? They don’t want a con­flict on this in the leadup to Christ­mas?

Savva: You wouldn’t think so – I think it would be in their in­ter­est to try and make a few tweaks and changes here and there and ba­si­cally get it off the agenda. That is clearly a gov­ern­ment is­sue, a gov­ern­ment strength, and I don’t think they would be want­ing to spend too much time de­bat­ing that.

The tone of Savva’s com­ments was in keep­ing with the style of the show, which is more about the pol­i­tics of the week than a deep anal­y­sis of is­sues, so this isn’t in­tended as a crit­i­cism of her con­tri­bu­tion. It made La­bor’s sur­prise de­ci­sion to de­part from this ter­ri­ble script all the more wel­come.

In­tel­li­gence and po­lice ser­vices are de­ter­mined to be able to force telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies and soft­ware de­vel­op­ers to in­tro­duce covert se­cu­rity flaws into their prod­ucts and ser­vices, to make it eas­ier to un­der­take war­rant­less sur­veil­lance on Aus­tralians. The Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Al­liance, Aus­tralian In­dus­try Group, Aus­tralian In­for­ma­tion In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion and Aus­tralian Mo­bile Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions As­so­ci­a­tion on the other hand, told the com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gat­ing the bill that it stood “… the very real risk of se­verely dam­ag­ing Aus­tralia’s (and in­ter­na­tional) cy­ber­se­cu­rity”.

Their sub­mis­sion shreds the bill as “am­bigu­ous”, “ex­traor­di­nar­ily broad”, “very con­cern­ing” and “vul­ner­a­ble to the ex­er­cise of bias”.

Their sub­mis­sion gives due re­gard to the broad risks to the pub­lic that the gov­ern­ment is con­tem­plat­ing, but its main fo­cus is on Aus­tralian telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions providers find­ing them­selves un­able to sell their prod­ucts over­seas be­cause it will be im­pos­si­ble to guar­an­tee their de­vices or ser­vices are se­cure.

A broad coali­tion of civil so­ci­ety and dig­i­tal rights or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing Dig­i­tal Rights Watch, the Aus­tralian Pri­vacy Foun­da­tion and Elec­tronic Fron­tiers Aus­tralia rec­om­mended “that the Aus­tralian Par­lia­ment re­ject the Bill whole­sale”, on the grounds that the vast ex­pan­sion of pow­ers granted to Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and se­cu­rity agen­cies was dan­ger­ous and un­jus­ti­fi­able. While it is pretty rare for in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions to pay much at­ten­tion to the mis­er­able the­atre that passes for na­tional se­cu­rity de­bate in Aus­tralia, this bill has hit the spot.

The In­ter­net Ar­chi­tec­ture Board (IAB) is a key over­sight and ad­min­is­tra­tive or­gan of the In­ter­net En­gi­neer­ing Task Force (IETF), which it de­scribes as be­ing “re­spon­si­ble for the key tech­nol­ogy stan­dards that are used on the in­ter­net”. In its sharply worded sub­mis­sion, it states:

The board’s sub­mis­sion pushes back hard on the gov­ern­ment’s ap­par­ent de­sire to be able to com­pel in­ter­na­tional stan­dards-set­ting bod­ies to sab­o­tage the very stan­dards they are tasked with up­hold­ing, not­ing that the IETF “… has re­jected the devel­op­ment of any sys­tem de­signed to aid state ac­tors in com­pro­mise of the se­cu­rity of In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tions.”

What is at stake here is the se­cu­rity of your per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions and fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions, your phone, your lap­top and all of the ser­vices that run on them. A pro­posal to break the se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture of the in­ter­net so blind­ingly mis­con­ceived that the stan­dards body that over­sees the whole medium has told the gov­ern­ment, in writ­ing, to shelve it.

The gov­ern­ment is de­mand­ing the bill be passed be­fore the end of the par­lia­men­tary sit­ting year. Pe­ter Dut­ton knows the com­mit­tee tasked with as­sess­ing the bill – the Par­lia­men­tary Joint Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence and Se­cu­rity – was still con­duct­ing its in­quiry, hold­ing pub­lic hear­ings as re­cently as last Fri­day.

But then some­thing unique hap­pened: La­bor called Dut­ton’s bluff. For the first time in liv­ing mem­ory on a na­tional se­cu­rity is­sue, La­bor cited the se­ri­ous con­cerns raised by nearly ev­ery non-gov­ern­ment wit­ness that gave ev­i­dence to the com­mit­tee, and pro­posed sig­nif­i­cant amend­ments to the bill. Even in of­fer­ing to pass a com­pro­mise bill which would leave some of the sub­stance of the draft laws dan­ger­ously in­tact, La­bor crossed a line and briefly took us into un­charted ter­ri­tory.

Pre­dictably, gov­ern­ment spokes­men turned the hys­te­ria up to 11. The prime min­is­ter, Scott Mor­ri­son, led off: “La­bor are quite happy for ter­ror­ists and or­gan­ised crim­i­nals to chat on What­sApp.” En­ergy min­is­ter An­gus Tay­lor piled on, ac­cus­ing La­bor of “run­ning a pro­tec­tion racket for ter­ror­ists”.

The en­tire ac­cepted wis­dom of the pol­i­tics of na­tional se­cu­rity was briefly un­der the spot­light. A week af­ter Savva’s dec­la­ra­tion, a some­what in­cred­u­lous Bar­rie Cas­sidy put it to La­bor se­nate leader Sen­a­tor Penny Wong:

Cas­sidy: You’re go­ing to op­pose the bill. You’re leav­ing your­self wide open, aren’t you, to at­tacks of be­ing soft on ter­ror­ism?

De­spite be­ing care­ful to point out that La­bor was not op­pos­ing the bill out­right but of­fer­ing a com­pro­mise, Wong was straight­for­ward in lay­ing out the case against the gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal. Buoyed, the tech in­dus­try and civil rights or­gan­i­sa­tions launched a joint push un­der the ban­ner of the “Al­liance for a Safe and Se­cure In­ter­net” to stop pas­sage of the bill.

And then, hav­ing tested the wa­ters, the col­lapse. The bill will pass. La­bor has agreed to “make a few tweaks and changes here and there and ba­si­cally get it off the agenda,” as fore­told. Most insulting of all, La­bor are ef­fec­tively telling us that they are more scared of Dut­ton’s thug­gish talk­ing points than they are of us. And come elec­tion time, we will pre­sum­ably be asked to for­get that this ever hap­pened.

In this in­stance we know La­bor un­der­stands how reck­less this bill is, be­cause they spent a few days telling us how con­cerned they were. Be­cause it is again com­ing down to pol­i­tics over pol­icy and com­mon sense, it is up to us to raise the po­lit­i­cal cost of these ca­pit­u­la­tions, to re­write this dis­as­trous “bi­par­ti­san” script once and for all.

Pho­to­graph: Kirsty O’Con­nor/PA

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