trapped in a national security script

or 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.

First published at the Guardian

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:

We are concerned that this proposal might have a serious and undesirable impact upon the internet and, taken as a model, the sum of similar legislation may result in the fragmentation of the internet.

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 knowsthe 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.