How quickly the ’’worm turns” for Australia. Coincidentally, in Washington at the time of the recent Florida school shootings, Australia’s PM, Malcolm Turnbull, was lauded by anti-gun activists and the press. The reason for the praise was that Australia passed sweeping anti-gun laws in the late 1990s that appear to have lessened the gun threat there, while the problem still persists in the gun-loving US. But, at almost the same instant, Australia is being castigated in another arena - that of privacy which has, conversely, enraged liberals.
Telling the National Press Club of Australia that if tech companies don’t allow for decryption, the government will legislate to enforce it, Australia's home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has jumped into the global encryption debate. Dutton said that “ubiquitous (unbreakable) encryption, a vital tool to all of us for secure personal banking and other communications including messaging, has become a significant obstacle to terrorism investigations.”
In joining the chorus of other countries around the world saying basically the same, Dutton’s message struck a different chord because he raised the threat of legislating decryption into existence, while other countries are merely exploring that possibility. Not only that, but he wants the process to be made so simple and easy as to make message recovery as common as a phone tap. Under the heading of keeping the citizenry more secure, he seems to overlook the basic problem that it’s not that easy.
And just comparing decryption to being as simple as a phone tap demonstrates how out of touch he and his ilk actually are. Tech companies have gone on record stating that they can’t do for the government that which it can’t do for itself - namely giving out backdoor keys which they don’t possess. Saying that it would all be hunky-dory if the request for decryption were accompanied by a court order only confirms his delusions. Later, he confuses matters even more by suggesting that perhaps backdoors aren’t really necessary. Okay.
This ploy is typical of politicians who promise pie-in-the-sky programs - to deliver the undeliverable - merely to stake out the high ground in the law and order debate, and command the news cycle for a few days. It deflects attention away from their incompetence and puts it instead on the companies. All the Five Eyes partners are astute at playing this game. In January, UK Prime Minister, Theresa, May made similar noises, So it seems that everybody is jumping on the bandwagon without acknowledging the difficulty in what they’re suggesting.
The attempt to give the decryption folly credence is cleverly and deliberately confused by introducing incontrovertible facts into one side of the problem-solution equation. To wit, Dutton states the clear evidence of a problem, that “criminals are mounting sophisticated and discreet attacks, employing ransomware, credential harvesting and social engineering” against us. And, of course, to further pull on the heartstrings, why not trot out the online safety of our children for good measure?
These things are without dispute. Also not in dispute are the facts that the technology we use and enjoy every day is almost akin to turning on the tap for water, or flipping a switch to turn on the lights - and it is only sure to grow in the future. But merely stating the obvious doesn’t make the solution possible i.e. on-demand decryption by law enforcement. If tech companies could do it in such a way as to not relegate their product to obscurity, they would.
The tech companies that would be affected -- Facebook, Google, and others – have vehemently expressed concern that any weakening of their end-to-end security (like, say, installing backdoors) would introduce vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. Once that happens, their credibility and their products are doomed. Australian authorities who believe that there can be decryption without backdoors are only deluding themselves.
And, even if it were a palatable solution, the potential for abuse is highlighted in the statement made this summer by Australia’s attorney general, George Brandis.
“At one point or more of that process, access to the encrypted communication is essential for intelligence and law enforcement,” he said, “If there are encryption keys then those encryption keys have to be put at the disposal of the authorities.”
Are you shuddering yet?
Image credit: By AndreyO/Shuterstock.