With NSA cyber weapons already in the hands of criminals and unleashed on the general public, how can we trust law enforcement agencies with the keys to our private lives?
A global encryption showdown is looming as Australia, along with its closest allies in the US and UK, demand that online giants like Facebook bypass end-to-end encryption on services like WhatsApp – so law enforcement agencies can read our messages if they suspect we’re up to no good.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis expect us to trust them with the keys to our digital lives. Photo: James Brickwood
Meanwhile some European politicians are pushing to make end-to-end encryption mandatory and ensure messages can only be read by the intended recipient. One option on the table is to make encryption backdoors illegal.
Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, insists that Australia is not asking Facebook and other online tech giants to create an encryption “backdoor”. Instead he simply wants them to fall into line with other communications providers and grant law enforcement agencies access to private communications to assist with major investigations.
Unfortunately for those who make and enforce the law, the tech giants have been preparing for this day ever since revelations that America’s spy agent the NSA was secretly tapping into their networks. Along with improving their own internal security, Facebook and others have also hardened the security of their private messaging tools and literally thrown away the key.
Facebook’s popular WhatsApp chat app is one of the services which introduced end-to-end encryption which ensures only the intended recipient can read messages. It’s enabled by default, which means WhatsApp doesn’t have the decryption keys – it can’t read our messages or grant access to anyone else, even if it wants to.
Somehow the politicians expect WhatsApp to make an exception for law enforcement agencies who ask nicely. How is this possible? Turnbull doesn’t know and he says that’s not his problem, it’s up to WhatsApp to figure out a way to comply.
The laws of mathematics would seem to stand in the way, but Turnbull insists that they’re trumped but Australian law; “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia,” Turnbull said, in a line that his anti-intellectual US counterpart Donald Trump would be proud of.
Realistically any solution to this problem would not involve actually cracking encryption, but rather bypassing it. Turnbull is adamant he’s not calling for an encryption “backdoor”, just a secret way that only law enforcement can sneak into our messages. So when is a security backdoor not a backdoor? Apparently when only the good guys can use it.
As the encryption debate rages, the world is suffering at the hands of other security backdoors which our spy agencies were entrusted with. The NSA’s arsenal of security exploits was recently stolen and leaked online, and now hackers are using them to wreak havoc in the form of ramsonware attacks like WannaCry.
Facebook and others introduced end-to-end encryption to throw away the key to our privacy before it ended up in the wrong hands – the wrong hands not just being hackers. The NSA couldn’t keep its most dangerous cyber weapons safe, yet Malcolm Turnbull expects us to trust law enforcement agencies with even greater power. They’ve proven they don’t deserve that trust.