Image: Asha McLean/ZDNet
For a western democracy, Australia has certainly punched above its weight when it comes to trying to implement absolutely stupid ideas.
In the midst of a mandatory internet filter debate in 2012, Australia was placed on the Enemies of the Internet watch list, and deservedly so.
And last week, the Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull told ZDNet that the laws produced in Canberra are able to trump the laws of mathematics.
“The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that,” he said on Friday. “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”
Australia has made the running for the Five Eyes nations — the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — on the topic of encryption and the problems it poses for law enforcement.
At the heart of Australia’s push is the idea that there needs to be an online equivalent of a lawful phone tap, and the uptake of end-to-end encrypted messaging systems is making it hard for law enforcement. It’s not an unreasonable argument that there are a small number of people that need to be monitored by law enforcement, it has always been so, but the nation’s leaders have been completely vague and circumspect in detailing what it is that they want, and how the authorities go about it.
Take an excerpt from an interview with Turnbull on July 5.
Just as the rule of law prevails in the analogue world so it must prevail in the cyber world and just as we are able with an appropriate legal authority, with a court order, with a warrant to get access to communications or confidential material that might be residing in somebody’s safe or in their filing cabinet somewhere, so access should be able to be had to information, to messaging that is currently encrypted.
We have the ability to seek an order of that kind with respect to encrypted communications but of course it doesn’t help you if you can’t get the communications decrypted.
So I am not talking about backdoors or anything that is any different from the very straightforward legal process we have at the moment.
In the days since, the imprecision has continued, with Turnbull stating the following in a speech in London:
Now encryption is vitally important to protect our security online but just as a locked bank vault or a filing cabinet cannot resist a Court order to produce a document, why should the owners of encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram, or Signal be able to establish end to end encryption in such a way that nobody, not the owners and not the courts have the ability to find out what is being communicated.
Rather it is saying to Silicon Valley and its emulators — the ball is in your court. You have created messaging applications which are encrypted end to end, they are being used by terrorists and criminals to hide their murderous plans.
This will be a difficult conversation in many places, and especially in the USA, where there is a strong, anti government libertarian tradition on both the left and the right.
But here is the bottom line — the best defence against terrorists’ plans is good intelligence. We have in the last few years in Australia disrupted twelve major terrorists plots, including several that would have resulted in large mass casualty attacks. How many more can we disrupt if every communication, by every conspirator, is encrypted end to end and cannot be read despite every lawful right, indeed duty, so to do?
So these are some of the challenges as we balance liberty and security, ensuring we have the security that enables our freedoms.
By the time Friday morning arrived, Australia’s Attorney-General George Brandis — who is not known for his technical acumen, particularly after a Walkley Award-winning interview where he struggled to explain what metadata was — said he has been informed by the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters intelligence agency that it was possible to break into encrypted messages, and to do so in real-time.
Taken together, it appears the Australian government is proposing one of the following: That providers of encrypted messaging services create a backdoor for themselves to allow decryption to occur whenever the cops or spies demand it, or the service providers are forced to man-in-the-middle their own protocols; as for handset makers, they have been warned they will need to co-operate with law enforcement and may entail having to push compromised operating systems or messaging applications onto suspects, or inform the government when they are notified of a 0-day bug, and give the government time to compromise their targets; or all of the above.
The core issue is that all these schemes boil down to putting a genie back in the bottle, and to mix analogies, not only has the encrypted messaging horse bolted, but it is three paddocks over and never coming back to the stable.
Australia has decided it is the jurisdiction that will jump into a legal quagmire with both feet, and it is a brave call for a nation that is nowhere near being called a superpower and has little leverage on the predominately US-based corporations it wishes to bring to heel.
If Apple was willing to stand up to the US Justice Department and the FBI in 2016, what makes the brains trust in Canberra think it hasn’t just signed up to years and years of legal wrangling?
Australia is a rounding error on Apple’s financials, and if Cupertino wanted to make an example of the country, it could pull up stumps and force Australians to import its devices themselves — and probably increase its market share in the process.
Were roles reversed and it was the United States pushing for the nebulous changes Australia is after, perhaps something would be done to satisfy the wants of lawmakers.
Australian culture has a particularly awful “love it or leave it” saying, and in the instance of Canberra trying to dictate to multinationals how their products should work, and what features they have, or demanding a new compromised update system, the “leave it” option could always be used.
It would be no less than we deserve for allowing our leaders to prosecute ridiculous claims in the past, and letting them get away with it.
The state of the metadata retention scheme is a good example of this, where it was eventually settled that access would be reduced to 21 agencies, yet the department responsible for overseeing the scheme was advising agencies without access to use other means of gaining the data if they could.
In the recent debate surrounding the collection of GST by online vendors such as eBay and Alibaba, the Australian Taxation Office said it was leaving the prospect of blocking auction sites that did not collect the tax on the table, while eBay said it might end up blocking Australians first.
Australian leadership is caught between the lofty goals of a AU$1.1 billion innovation agenda and potentially a new space agency, and always managing to have a knee-jerk and Luddite reaction to anything new online.
In a world where Canberra is successful and wins every argument it makes, will our Prime Minister be happy when Moscow or Beijing have their own warrants demanding Apple and Google use the their Australian-inspired processes to compromise a device?
At the present time, it might be best if we were sent to our room with no dinner to think about what we did and intend to do. Because if Australia is successful, the internet will be a less safe place for everyone, not just the “bad guys” the government wishes to track.
Please ignore us, hopefully it is a phase that we will grow out of.
ZDNet’s Monday Morning Opener
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet’s global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.
Previously on Monday Morning Opener: