Australia wants to take government surveillance to the next level

Australia wants to take government surveillance to the next level

A state’s capacity to spy on its citizens has grown exponentially in recent years as new technology has meant more aspects of our lives can be observed, recorded and analyzed than ever before. At the same time, much to the frustration of intelligence agencies around the world so has the ability to keep digital information secret, thanks to encryption.

That’s why the main intelligence agencies of the Anglophone world are now hoping that Australia will lead the charge in developing ways to get decrypt information at will and to tap into data that was previously kept secret. A proposed law, the draft of which was released last month by the cybersecurity minister, is an aggressive step in that direction.

We should all be worried because it’s not just criminals or terrorists who use encryption, but every one of us. We use encryption to buy things online, manage our finances, and communicate personally and professionally. Hospitals, transportation systems, and government agencies use encrypted data.

Creating tools to weaken encrypted systems for one purpose weakens it for all purposes. If Australia succeeds in doing so, it could be your bank account or your medical records that are compromised in the end. This particular bill has been more than a year in the making. At the June 2017 meeting in Ottawa of the Five Eyes — the intelligence alliance made up of the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — Australia made a point of the need for states to find ways to overcome encryption. A joint communiqué that came out of the meeting noted that encryption can “severely undermine public safety efforts” and committed Five Eyes members to work with technology companies to “explore shared solutions.” The Australian government set about translating this objective into law.

The release of the bill, which came just before the latest meeting of the Five Eyes in Australia last month, which confirmed the strategy. No doubt Australia’s intelligence and law enforcement establishment were thrilled with this proposal. Australia, which has no bill of rights, is a logical place to test new strategies for collecting intelligence that can later be adopted elsewhere. Among other things, the proposed law would create a process for “designated communications providers” — defined so expansively that it covers any business hosting a website — to assist intelligence and law enforcement agencies to do almost anything to give them access to encrypted communications. For example, providers may have to build tools, install software or keep agencies up-to-date with developments.

In essence, state agencies will be able to circumvent encryption, either with the cooperation of tech companies or by compulsion. The government has been quick to claim that this is not a back door, and the bill prohibits requests to companies to create “systemic” weaknesses. But this prohibition is ambiguous, and the reporting and accountability safeguards are minimal. The truth is that there is simply no way to create tools to undermine encryption without jeopardizing digital security and eroding individual rights and freedoms. Hackers with bad intentions will do their utmost to take advantage of any such tools that companies are forced to provide the government.

There are good reasons to be deeply wary of granting powers to state agencies to build and hoard tools that weaken technological infrastructure. Last year, the WannaCry ransomware threw Britain’s National Health Service into chaos. The attack exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft software. According to Microsoft, the United States National Security Agency had discovered the vulnerability well before the ransomware was released, but decided against disclosing it to Microsoft to fix, and thereby protect the information systems used by the health service.

Industry figures and experts argue that the N.S.A. was seeking to accumulate a kind of digital arsenal — it could use the vulnerability for its own intelligence purposes while it remained unpatched. The problem was that at some point, intelligence about the vulnerability was apparently stolen. Only then did the N.S.A. tell Microsoft about its existence. As Microsoft pointed out, this was the equivalent of a Tomahawk missile going missing. British patients paid the price. Seemingly in response to such criticisms, the bill in Australia prohibits the government from preventing a company from repairing such a vulnerability. But this is the cold comfort: The N.S.A. didn’t need to prevent Microsoft patching the problem because Microsoft didn’t even know it existed.

The WannaCry attack illustrates how intelligence agencies prioritize their own interests. If we give state agencies more power to build tools to circumvent encryption, not only do we expose ourselves to the risk that they can be stolen, we are forced to trust that these agencies will behave responsibly. The evidence to date suggests the opposite. Worse still, the Australian government hardly has the best reputation for keeping things safe.

In recent times, it has lost control of medical data; one of its military contractors was hacked and lost “large amounts” of data; a cabinet full of secret documents even turned up this year in a secondhand furniture store. Just think about how easily sophisticated criminals might be able to get their hands on any digital tools for getting access to encrypted communications.

When Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that the American and British spy agencies had tried to weaken encryption so that they could tap digital communications, cryptography scholars voiced their shock that these agencies would act “against the interests of the public.” “By weakening all our security so that they can listen in to the communications of our enemies,” they wrote, “they also weaken our security against our potential enemies.”

The same is true today. The Australian government is testing the limits of our democracy by seeking to empower the surveillance state, and what it learns will have implications globally.We need to take a stand against this power grab by state agencies and reject the idea that encrypted communications undermine security. Quite the opposite: They are complementary.




Djokovic knocked out as Nadal battles on in Monte Carlo

Djokovic knocked out as Nadal battles on in Monte Carlo

World number one Novak Djokovic was dumped out by Daniil Medvedev while Rafael Nadal survived a struggle to reach the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters for the 14th time yesterday. Djokovic, twice a champion in the principality, lost serve five times in a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 defeat by Russ

Chelsea fight off Slavia

Chelsea fight off Slavia

Chelsea was given a fright by Slavia Prague in a 4-3 home win on Thursday that saw them to a 5-3 aggregate victory and a place in the semi-finals of the Europa League. Already 1-0 up from the first leg, Chelsea were cruising when they scored three more goals in the first 17 minutes at Sta

Nadal steamrolls to opening win

Nadal steamrolls to opening win

Rafael Nadal charged out of the blocks yesterday to hammer Roberto Bautista Agut 6-1, 6-1 in his opening match at the Monte Carlo Masters. The 11-time champion showed no sign of the knee problems which forced him to quit ahead of an Indian Wells semi-final against Roger Federer a month ag

Ajax stun Juventus

Ajax stun Juventus

Ajax stunned Juventus to reach the Champions League semi-finals for the first time since 1997 as Matthijs de Light's thumping second-half header secured a 2-1 second-leg victory in the last eight in Turin on Tuesday. Cristiano Ronaldo, bidding for his sixth Champions League title, scored

World’s biggest single-day election

World’s biggest single-day election

Indonesia kicked off one of the world’s biggest one-day elections yesterday, pitting president Joko Widodo against ex-general Prabowo Subianto in a race to lead the Muslim-majority nation. More than 190 million Indonesians are set to cast a ballot as polls opened shortly after 7:00

Sudan’s Bashir transferred to prison: family source

Sudan’s Bashir transferred to prison: family source

Ousted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has been transferred to a Khartoum prison following his toppling by the army last week, a source from his family said yesterday. “Last night, Bashir was transferred to Kober prison in Khartoum,” the source said without revealing his nam


Djokovic knocked out as Nadal battles on in Monte Carlo

Djokovic knocked out as Nadal battles on in Monte Carlo

World number one Novak Djokovic was dumped out by Daniil Medvedev while Rafael Nadal survived a struggle to reach the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters for the 14th time yesterday. Djokovic, twice a champion in the principality, lost serve five times in a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 defeat by Russ

Chelsea fight off Slavia

Chelsea fight off Slavia

Chelsea was given a fright by Slavia Prague in a 4-3 home win on Thursday that saw them to a 5-3 aggregate victory and a place in the semi-finals of the Europa League. Already 1-0 up from the first leg, Chelsea were cruising when they scored three more goals in the first 17 minutes at Sta

Coming soon to China: the car of the future

Coming soon to China: the car of the future

Global automakers are positioning for a brave new world of on-demand transport that will require a car of the future -- hyper-connected, autonomous, and shared -- and China may become the concept’s laboratory. With ride-hailing services booming and car-sharing not far behind, the ne

Japan, China shares climb in thin holiday trade

Japan, China shares climb in thin holiday trade

Tokyo and Shanghai stocks closed higher yesterday but trade lacked direction with several major markets closed for Easter holidays. In Japan, the benchmark Nikkei 225 index added 0.50 percent, or 110.44 points, to 22,200.56, while the broader Topix index climbed 0.12pc, or 1.96 points, to 1,616.9

GCC pledge for Yemen wins UN praise

GCC pledge for Yemen wins UN praise

The UN Security Council has commended Saudi Arabia and the UAE after the two countries pledged $200 million in humanitarian relief assistance for Yemenis for Ramadan. Council members voiced their concern that agreements between the Yemeni government and Houthis in Stockholm four months ag

Bahrain to mark Arab Deaf Week

Bahrain to mark Arab Deaf Week

Bahrain will mark the 44th Arab Deaf Week during this month’s last week. The pan-Arab Deaf Week was first launched in 1974 following the recommendations of the Arab Federation for the Deaf to enhance social awareness on the basic rights of this category of people Labour and Social Deve

Five jailed for sheltering fugitives

Five jailed for sheltering fugitives

The Lower Criminal Court has sentenced five defendants to one year behind bars each for sheltering two wanted fugitives, while a sixth suspect was freed due to lack of proof. The third defendant was the one who planned to provide the two wanted men with shelter after he received a call fr

Stranded expat ‘leading roofless life’

Stranded expat ‘leading roofless life’

A stranded expat in the Kingdom is devoid of basic necessities of life including a roof to sleep under. Indian national Sulaiman Kunju, has been living on the terrace of a building in Manama for the last four months, battling the last winter. Speaking to Tribune, Sulaiman said that he cam