The good news is, the war on maths is postponed, because maths won. The government appears to have given up on its ambition of undermining the global encryption standards that underpin secure communications on the internet.
First published at the Guardian
That’s the only good news, because there’s very little positive to be said about the government’s latest lunge for intrusive powers embodied in the Telecommunications and other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018. The template, by now, is so familiar you can probably recite this next bit by heart, but let’s run through it because the details matter.
Exploiting legitimate fears of terrorism and child abuse, the government wants expansive new powers which will allow it to hack your phone for purposes that are actually as loose as “protecting the public revenue; or the interests of Australia’s national security, the interests of Australia’s foreign relations, or the interests of Australia’s national economic well-being”. The bill sweeps the whole world’s telecommunications sector into its remit, with the intent not so much of breaking encryption standards, as making them irrelevant.
For an encrypted mail service or messaging app to be of any use, it needs to be decrypted at either end – so that you can see what’s being said. This new bill provides police, clandestine agencies and ministers with a startling range of tools for compromising devices and services in order to intercept communications at either end of the encryption “pipeline”. The tools cover everything from a 10 year jail term for refusing to unlock your phone, to legally binding orders forcing service providers to install malware on your device or create whole new compromised services for people to use unwittingly. The potential for misuse and abuse is extraordinary, but it is unlikely we’ll ever hear about it, owing to the steep new penalties for disclosing that these orders are in force. But maybe, the next time you’re asked to install an update to your favourite messaging app, you’ll be downloading something that isn’t what it appears to be.
The political template can change: it’s not written in stone that it has to keep being this way
The Australian digital rights community and the Greens have condemned the move, Labor has promised with a straight face to subject the bill to rigorous scrutiny as though it hasn’t already made up its mind, and government spokespeople have taken a break from white nationalism and coal advocacy to talk about their other favourite subject: national security.
The argument that the law needs to be updated as time and technologies move on is quite reasonable. The curious thing is, this argument is used to repeatedly ratchet up new powers for governments and secret police, while privacy law, whistleblower protections and anti-corruption legislation stay marooned in the 1980s for reasons that never quite come up for discussion. The most important gap in our legislative architecture – the absence of a legally enforceable human rights act – remains in the wilderness of major party indifference for the time being. In the meantime, it seems we’re due for our three-monthly bipartisan force-feeding of upgraded surveillance powers.
It hardly bears repeating that the people demanding these new powers are the same ones who signed off on the prosecution of Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery for exposing the vast misuse of espionage powers against our neighbours in Timor-Leste. They are the same people who provided a media organisation with the private details of blogger Andie Fox for exposing the extent of the robodebt mess. The very same people who have set the federal police against journalists and whistleblowers for reporting on the horrors of our internment camps on Manus Island and Nauru. In short, they deeply, truly and fundamentally cannot be trusted with the powers they already have.
The government has generously given us until September 10 to consider the draft bill and its explanatory notes, and submit our point of view to AssistanceBill.Consultation@homeaffairs.gov.au . This is the stage where some of the sharp edges of the bill may get knocked off before the real thing gets introduced into parliament and our options narrow significantly.
Making a submission is only the first step, because it amounts to simply playing by their process, and if that’s all we do, we’re doomed to repeat this charade until the government no longer feels it needs to bother asking for our opinion. The political template can change: it’s not written in stone that it has to keep being this way.
There is no magic to this: it’s called organising.
Withdrawing support for parties and candidates that keep doing this to us, and letting them know why we’re doing it. Joining digital rights organisations like Digital Rights Watch, the Australian Privacy Foundation and Electronic Frontiers Australia. If these organisations don’t appeal, start a new one. There are plain-English, highly legible analyses of the bill here, here, here and here, and sharing one or more of these articles – or writing your own – is a valuable way of boosting the signal to noise ratio out there.
In the near-term, an election looms on the horizon, one in which the internet will be an essential platform for candidates to get the message out. Making sure that nobody can make an announcement without their attitude to digital rights being under scrutiny – that’s something we can all do. Supporting the campaign teams who are gearing up to bury Peter Dutton under an electoral landslide – also useful, as well as being extremely fun.
Most importantly, coming up with the campaign idea that hasn’t been tried yet, and just being visible on the issue, gives others courage to know that we’re not doing this work alone. Somewhere out there, there’s a critical mass of opposition to this government’s repetitive abuses of power – let’s go find it.