our fight for digital rights

Elections are shaped by the tension between what major party politicians want to talk about and what’s actually happening in the country. If they have decided it’s in their collective interest to run dead on the climate emergency, or the need to urgently raise the Newstart rate for example, then it is hard to get a word in edgewise.

First published at the Guardian

There is always a risk that digital rights and the future of the internet will vanish into this gap in the national conversation; but as hard as the major parties might wish these issues would stay in the memory hole, this time around they can’t be avoided.

In the shambolic final senate sitting of 2018, the major parties colluded to ram through an untidy stack of legislation including the assistance and access bill, a set of laws deliberately named so as to make your eyes glaze over. Against the furious opposition of the whole Australian technology sector, digital rights organisations and a handful of independents and the Greens, the laws were hammered through in the closing minutes of parliament. With a minimum of oversight, the government now has the power to force technology companies to deliberately introduce targeted weaknesses into their software and devices. If you happen to be a person of interest in some investigation, you can no longer trust that the software update your vendor is pushing on you doesn’t contain state-sponsored malware giving them total access to your device. If you’re not a person of interest, that’s too bad – once these software exploits exist, they have a habit of getting loose and finding their way into the hands of anyone who can afford them. Of course the government assures us they can keep these compromised software patches safe and under wraps. I’m of the view that if even the CIA can’t keep their collection of software vulnerabilities and cyber-weapons from being leaked, Peter Dutton and whoever comes after him has less than Buckley’s chance.

Trust in shrill invocations of “national security” as cover for the politics of fear and commercial espionage are at an all-time low

This is a deliberate violation of one of the fundamental principles of digital security: keep your system up to date. Any reluctance to keep your devices updated just makes life easier for criminals.

The Australian technology industry is now in an impossible position: forced to write snitchware for the same government that broke the NBN, introduced mandatory data retention and presided over the #robodebt catastrophe, #Censusfail and a numbing procession of other avoidable technology debacles.

Assurances by Dutton and Scott Morrison that such laws are essential for national security were enough to cower the Labor party into submission, but nobody else was fooled. The government is still trying to contain the rolling scandal of the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet rooms by Australian spy agencies in 2004. With good reason, trust in shrill invocations of “national security” as cover for the politics of fear and commercial espionage are at an all-time low.

Several Australian-based companies have announced their intention to move offshore if the laws are not repealed or substantially amended in the next parliament. International clients are wary of hiring Australian developers who won’t be able to disclose if the software they are writing has been intentionally corrupted by spy agencies.

The industry has joined forces with Digital Rights Watch and Electronic Frontiers Australia to make their case directly: SaveOzTech.com.au details the first-hand experience of technology workers caught in the crossfire of a hostile government and timid opposition. For all the talk of the importance of the digital economy, the Australian government seems determined to make life impossible for the local tech sector, and they’ve been dragging the Labor party along in their wake.In March, Labor MP Ed Husic told a StartupAus conference he wished he could “turn back time,” acknowledging that the Assistance and Access Act would need to be revisited. Without a timeline, or a specific proposal for amendments or repeal, there is a risk the issue will simply drift.

We have to do better. With the major parties locked in an embrace of compromise and mediocrity, an election might be a fine time to fill up the crossbench with fiery and technically literate independents and minor parties. The people we elect on Saturday will be there between three and six years – well into the 2020s, long enough to do substantial further damage to our civil and political rights as well as one of our most important industries. Post-election, the job of unwinding the messes of the 45th parliament will be upon us. Take your pick: unwinding mandatory data retention and the assistance and access mess, preventing a full-blown GovPass train wreck and getting robodebt repealed immediately – there’s no shortage of work to do.

As the hours run down to polling day, we have the opportunity to ensure there are at least a handful of friendly faces in the 46th parliament, to ensure these conversations are had whether the major parties want it or not.