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Issue #1852      December 12, 2018

Big Brother strikes again

In its dying hours of Parliament’s last sitting day for the year, the federal government successfully rammed through a bill to give intelligence agencies and state and federal police new powers to access private and confidential communications and data.

The bill applies across-the-board to businesses and government departments, advocacy and community groups and individuals. It purports to be targeting terrorist and serious criminal activity but the wording is so open and it provides for so little accountability, that it could be used for any purpose.

It was passed despite strong opposition from the technology industry, privacy organisations, the Law Society of Australia, cyber-security firms, civil liberty groups and a range of other organisations, businesses and individuals.

Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, and the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, claimed that the bill had to be passed before the end of the year to save the public from serious terrorist incidents and the acts of paedophiles over the Christmas-New Year period.

Apparently over the Christmas period there is a heightened danger of terrorism. That might be true, but then why are thousands of Border Force staff facing the sack just before Christmas? There will be fewer Border Force staff at airports and patrolling the seas!

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), which was reviewing the bill, was due to report on April 3, 2019. Its work was cut short.

Labor had previously agreed in principle to the bill, but indicated it would not vote for it until after the review was complete next year and a number of amendments made. As it stood the bill was vague in parts, failed to offer the protection that was promised and could threaten the security of Australians and Australian businesses.

But on December 6, not waiting for due process to be completed, Bipartisan Bill did a backflip and Labor supported it and over 50 pages of amendments that had been agreed to behind closed doors. MPs were not given enough time to even read the amendments!

In the House of Representatives, only two MPs voted against it – Australian Greens Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie. It is significant that Wilkie has spent more than 20 years in the military and intelligence services as well, but still spoke strongly against it.

Labor behaved like a cornered mouse, ready to agree to almost anything to avoid a Coalition election campaign accusing them of not taking Australia’s “National Security” seriously.

Labor leader Bill Shorten tried to save face claiming the government had agreed to the PJCIS resuming its review in 2019 and the holding of a separate statutory review by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor within 18 months of the legislation coming into effect.

Encryption

In computing and electronic communications, encryption is the method by which text or any other type of data is converted from a readable form to an encoded version that can only be decoded by another entity if they have access to a decryption key. Data is a term for information that has been converted into digital form.

Encryption is used to protect the security and privacy of data in transit, sent from all sorts of devices across a variety of networks, not just the Internet.

Encryption has become part of our day-to-day lives, although we might not always be aware that it is occurring. For example, it takes place every time someone makes an online payment or bank transfer, withdraws cash from an ATM, as well as sending and receiving emails, uses various applications such as Skype, WhatsApp, or WeChat for communications, books a taxi using a mobile phone, and so on.

Decryption keys are also in common usage. For example, the PIN is used for unlocking a mobile phone, making a credit card payment, withdrawing money at an ATM, for online banking, or the password for accessing a computer.

Encryption systems range from quite simple ones that provide little security through to extremely complex ones. Likewise decryption keys come in a variety of forms and types, some that are relatively easy to break and others which are extremely complex and even the company providing them cannot access.

It is this latter type that the government wants to be able to decrypt or decode and gain access to the data. To do this, it is necessary for the technology company to insert software capable of breaking the encryption – a backdoor way in.

New powers

The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 contains three key powers to make it possible for the government to access decrypted communications and data:

A technical assistance request (TAR): A company is asked to “voluntarily” help, such as give technical details about the development of a new online service.

A technical assistance notice (TAN): A company is required to give assistance. For example, if they can decrypt a specific communication, they must.

A technical capability notice (TCN): The company must build a new function to help police get at a suspect’s data.

There are hefty fines and jail terms of up to 10 years for failure to comply with TANs and TCNs.

Australian Greens MP Adam Bandt pointed out that the bill would make Australians less secure.

“But the basic principle is there’s no such thing as requiring companies to be able to create a key that unlocks secure communication that doesn’t also create a systemic weakness.”

“It’s a very simple proposition: once you introduce a weakness and you require by law the introduction of a weakness into otherwise secure communication, you lose control over who can exploit that weakness.”

It not only threatens Australia’s technology industry but also is an attack on democratic rights by opening up a door into people’s private communications that can be secretly and remotely accessed or by the seizure of computers and stored data.

Police state

Wilkie was just as strongly opposed. “So I think … it’s a bad idea to, by law, [to] require all the encrypted communications in this country to have a vulnerability by design that can be exploited by wrongdoers.”

“I think it is a reasonable conclusion to draw that there will be concern in other countries and in multinational businesses that have operations in Australia that they will then be partners with a country that has this vulnerability within our ICT (information and communications technology).”

“I think this is another case of an excessive extension of the power of the state, and it’s another case of the government and the alternative government being in lock step,” Wilke warned.

“It will make us less safe. It will be because of a government – this government, this opposition – seeking to extend the power of the state just that bit further, and, frankly, to take us that bit closer to a police state, because in so many ways we have already reached a pre-police state – too many laws, too much power for the state and too much power for the security services.”

In fact, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, well over 60 security reforms have been passed by federal Parliament and hundreds more at the state level, mostly purporting to address terrorism.

Cyber-security experts have warned the laws could now create a “global weak point” for companies such as Facebook and Apple. There are fears that some global firms could withdraw from the Australian market and Australian technology companies be forced to move offshore.

But the biggest problem raised by critics is that any new vulnerabilities built to access a suspect’s messages could damage the security of smartphones or the internet more generally, making us all less safe online.

No other country has adopted such legislation, for good reason.

Counter-productive

Representatives from Senetas Corporation, told a public hearing of the PJCIS, that the bill, “... compromises the security of citizens, businesses and governments because there will be weaker cybersecurity practices. It will be easier for cybercriminals, terrorists, to target systems and be able to break into those systems ...”

Senetas is no amateur when it comes to encryption technology. It is responsible for securing the systems of Australian law enforcement agencies; royal commissions, including the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; a number of Australian banks; and Australia’s defence forces.

So why don’t the government and Labor listen to one of their most trusted security experts? It beggars belief.

Major employer bodies, including the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, the Australian Information Industry Association and the Communications Alliance, also warned the PJCIS:

“The proposed legislation, through its mere existence, will make Australian exports of IT and communications products and services, or even every Australian website, subject to the same concerns by overseas governments and organisations that recently moved the Australian government to ban certain vendors from supplying hardware for Australia’s future 5G networks.

“Therefore, the draft bill poses a real risk for the IT communications export industry, which Austrade values at AU$3.2 billion for 2016-17 and this figure does not include the value of other exports enabled by Australian websites, IT and communications products.”

The government claims encrypted communications are increasingly being used by terrorist groups and organised criminals to avoid detection and disruption and hence the need for the new laws. However, criminals and terrorists will always find new ways to avoid detection and build their own encrypted messaging platforms and means of communications.

Next article – Rally in support of Iranian workers!

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