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Turnbull says Australian law beats math, calls for open access to encrypted messages


On Friday, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull declared war on math and proposed new laws which will allow the government to break encrypted messaging apps.

If the new laws pass, they will allow the government to force encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp to hand over specific users’ messaging history.

The proposed laws will be introduced into Parliament before the end of the year and are based on the U.K’s controversial Investigatory Powers Act of 2016.

As reported by ABC News, Turnbull said that the Coalition would prefer companies to offer help, but if they don’t then the government will force them. It’s “an offer they can’t refuse” – a tactic copped from the mafia playbook.

“Potentially, as the United Kingdom has done with its Investigatory Powers Act, as the New Zealanders did in 2013 with their equivalent legislation,” he said. “What this does is merely contemporise for the modern era what is a well-established legal principle and that is persons, including companies, can be subject to an obligation to assist law enforcement in solving crimes.”

Turnbull sees the encryption break as a wiretap, but it most certainly isn’t. Wiretaps are targeted in both duration and scope; a break of an encrypted messaging app gives access to users’ entire messaging history. You can’t just apply old laws to new tech (See also: copyright laws and p2p file sharing).

“The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia,” Turnbull continued.

The Prime Minister’s blatant disregard for privacy and, uh, math has drawn criticism from the likes of Edward Snowden and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The EFF called Turnbull’s claim “nonsense” and Snowden said it is a risk to civilisation.

Science and technology YouTuber Tom Scott recently went into detail about why it’s a terrible idea to allow governments to break encryption.

Scott points out that once an encryption backdoor exists, it will inevitably come under attack or be abused.

Governments might not just stop at possible crimes and widen the scope of snooping. Scott notes that laws and governments change and the apps we use are global. So if we allow a backdoor in Australia it continues the slippery slope of other countries doing the same. So, for example, governments hostile to LGBT citizens could use backdoors to track them down.

Scott also believes that backdoors fail “the bitter ex test”, the idea that someone with an agenda could use the information to harm others. Those with an agenda may be government employees, members of local law enforcement or hackers. We should never underestimate the pettiness of humans.

Finally, Scott questions whether an encryption backdoor would even stop crime. He gives the example of the Manchester bomber who was reported to the authorities five times prior to carrying out the attack. The problem is not a lack of information. Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent criminals from using code words or other, smaller apps that have yet to be broken.

Further, a cyber security professor at Deakin University, Matthew Warren, is also sceptical of the new laws on a practical level.

“The problem is if it would work in reality. It would only work if you knew the terrorist target that you were tracking, and actually knew what technologies they were using,” he told Mashable. “In order for this to work in realtime, it means the intelligence organisations will need access to the encryption keys. Apple and Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t going to do that.”

If Apple and Facebook do say no, it will be interesting to see how the Australian Government responds. Theoretically, they could go as far as to ban Apple and Facebook products in Australia. I’d like to see them try.

Taking away people’s privacy and freedom is one thing, but denying them their iPhones and Facebook? That’s a battle you can’t win.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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