Australia on Encryption: “I’m with Stupid”

Australia is following in the footsteps of the wrong-headed UK in trying to undermine encryption. In the ostensible bid to fight terrorism, Australia is the latest to risk the security that allows much of the web to function.

Map of Australia - an Encryption Stupid Nation
Claire Broadley
By Claire Broadley

When it comes to mass surveillance, Australia is a great example of a Western democracy pushing privacy boundaries. It’s already collecting data from ISPs (Internet Service Providers) on what citizens do online. And for Aussies, things are about to get worse.

The Australian government is now following the same wrong-headed stance as the UK, hounding tech giants for information on users while showing a crude and muddled understanding of encryption. It says it wants to weaken privacy for “bad guys”, but has no explanation of how it will achieve this without putting the rest of us at risk.

The Privacy Peril Facing Australia

Australian politicians have probably been inspired by the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, a law that dives so deep into our private online activity that it has already been declared partially unlawful by EU Court of Justice. Australian lawmakers want to force companies like Google and Facebook to open up their databases to any member of the police force with a warrant — a move that would require undermining the encryption that we all need to work, bank, and communicate safely.

Australia already has strict data retention laws. The new anti-encryption rhetoric would advance surveillance powers further still.

Australian leaders are parroting arguments heard in the UK in a bid for yet more surveillance powers

In their quest to prevent messaging apps from providing private channels, Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis are wheeling out similar arguments to those used by Theresa May and the UK’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. (You might remember that Rudd recently claimed that she doesn’t need to know how encryption works; similar magical thinking is occurring here.)

Commercially available messengers like WhatsApp offer encrypted communications channels for everyone. In the media, they are often singled out as terrorist tools. So it follows that weaker encryption is suggested as a panacea, without any explanation as to how the rest of us would use online banking, or submit our tax returns, with the privacy we require and deserve.

Turnbull is keen to point out that his government will create a legal equivalent to a “backdoor”, as opposed to an identical yet illegal one. And it’s quaint that Turnbull thinks hackers will care about whether the security flaw is legal or not when they set out to exploit it.

Say it Again: It’s Not About Terrorism

The excuse for Australia’s rapidly advancing surveillance powers is that there’s a requirement to fight terrorism. And Australians tend to agree; according to a 2016 ANU survey, 45% were “somewhat” or “very” concerned about a terrorist attack. As a result, 67% believe that privacy invasion is justified to prevent it.

But over the last two decades, the number of people who have died in Australia as a result of terror attacks is in single figures. Research suggests that Australians, like the rest of us, are influenced more by negative media reports than positive ones. Separate studies in the UK, the USA, and Australia suggest that we all assume that crime is more prevalent than it really is. Is this really a legitimate basis for the decryption of everyone’s private messages, as Senator Brandis would like?

Do six terrorism deaths in Australia in 20 years really justify decryption of all communication? More people died falling from ladders in 2015 alone.

We already know that terrorist organisations develop their own DIY encrypted messengers of varying complexity. There’s no word from the Australian government about it would deal with these, for one simple reason: it can’t.

Make no mistake: Australian lawmakers are driving full steam ahead with a mass surveillance program. It isn’t limited to catching terrorists. It’s a hacker’s dream and a privacy nightmare for normal, law-abiding citizens.

Preventing terrorism is perfectly acceptable. It doesn’t explain why you should be caught up in the net.

A Sign of Things to Come

In 2015, when he was communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull suggested encrypted messaging would be a good a way to get around his own data retention laws.

Now that he’s PM, he’s pushing ahead with facial recognition technology that is capable of matching citizens’ identity documents to CCTV footage — almost in real time. It’s a remarkable series events in two short years. And it should be enough to concern you — even if you live on the other side of the world.

Roger Dingledine, one of the developers behind the Tor browser, said in August that “the line is getting a lot more blurry between the free countries and the non-free countries”.

“The line is getting a lot more blurry between the free countries and the non-free countries” – Tor creator

Australia’s draconian rhetoric and surveillance technology is a case in point. But this isn’t just a problem for Australians. If its government makes progress to erode our privacy further, it will only be a matter of time before the rest of the Five Eyes follow.

How far will you allow your government to go in monitoring your every move?