Saturday, January 26, 2019

Australia Requires Back Door to Encrypted Communications

Let's say that you and a close friend or intimate created an impenetrable way of communicating with each other. No one else could understand it. Or perhaps you purchased a reinforced armored steel door for your home that can't be breached by anything short of a tank if the would be breacher lacks the key. Or imagine that you're a whistleblower journalist working on a stunning piece of work that will make the Pentagon Papers look like high school gossip. When you publish you will change American politics and history for ever. If anyone knew you had this information you or yours would have some "accidents" and/or the data would disappear. 

I think that most people would agree that the government shouldn't be able to demand that you provide them a codebook for your private conversations, a key to your door, transparent windows for your home and copies of your notes and contact information for your sources. Or at least the government shouldn't be able to do that unless and until you've been tried and convicted of some crime other than not letting the government know what you're talking about, writing about or doing in the privacy of your own home.

We hear a lot about how China continues to perfect the surveillance state. As it turns out although China is setting ugly new records in that regard, other countries are often doing their best to catch up.

SYDNEY, Australia — A new law in Australia gives law enforcement authorities the power to compel tech-industry giants like Apple to create tools that would circumvent the encryption built into their products.


The law, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, applies only to tech products used or sold in Australia. 

But its impact could be global: If Apple were to build a so-called back door for iPhones sold in Australia, the authorities in other countries, including the United States, could force the company to use that same tool to assist their investigations. The Australian law went into effect last month. It is one of the most assertive efforts by lawmakers to rein in tech companies, which have argued for decades that unbreakable encryption is an imperative part of protecting the private communications of their customers. 

In recent years, law enforcement officials have complained that tough encryption has made it impossible for them to gain access to the online discussions of crime suspects, particularly in time-sensitive terror investigations. 

The tension between tech and law enforcement came to a head about four years ago when Apple resisted a federal request to help investigators gain access to a locked iPhone that had belonged to a man who took part in a shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. The Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually found a way around the iPhone’s security without Apple’s help. But if Apple had already created a workaround — a back door, in industry terms — to sell phones in Australia, the American authorities could have simply ordered Apple to use the tool. 

“This may be an encryption back door for the U.S.,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, director of surveillance and cybersecurity policy for the New America think tank’s Open Technology Institute. “A back door to an encryption back door.” The Australian law has limited oversight mechanisms. A notice sent to a company must be “reasonable and proportionate,” and the authorities must have a warrant to gain access to a phone or service. 

But the agency issuing the notice decides what is reasonable. “Encryption is simply math,” Apple wrote in a statement submitted to the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on Oct. 12. “Any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data for anyone will by extension weaken the protections for everyone.”

But politicians said the risk of encryption technology’s being used by terrorists was too significant. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia said in July, “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Technology companies in the United States have argued that they cannot be compelled to create tools for breaking the encryption in their products because computer code is a kind of free speech protected under the First Amendment. But building tools to satisfy the Australian authorities would essentially make that argument moot. LINK


It is true that no one wants pedophiles or terrorists to be able to conspire to commit crimes secure in the knowledge that the proper authorities can't detect them. It is also true that national and local governments across the world have shown just as much if not more interest in the surveillance of political dissidents, activistspeace groups, political rivals, and corporate executives than in the prosecution of criminal cases.

Just as I don't want the builder who built my home to give the local sheriff a master key I don't want Apple or any other company to give any government a back door so that they can leisurely read my email, phone messages, browsing history, location, etc. Giving governments a free hand in this regard is stupid. There is already enough history to show that governments will not restrict these tools to strictly criminal investigations. And this is not a partisan conflict. Liberal NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio claims to have been unaware of police surveillance and infiltration of Black Lives Matters protesters and is apparently unable to stop it.

I suspect that many governments already have the capacity to break encryption in some cases. This new law may simply be a cover for something they were already doing. The problem is that because Australia and other English speaking nations are already in a formal intelligence sharing agreement with the United States, even if such laws don't pass muster in the US, there would be nothing stopping Australia in this case from sharing access to back doors on American citizens with US intelligence or law enforcement agencies. The other problem is that once you start coding back doors into commercial products there is nothing preventing other bad actors with long histories of commercial and political espionage (cough! China cough!) from waltzing in and scooping up all of the free data that you've made telecommunications companies provide.

This is also another example of how and why war is so deadly to the concept of a limited state and free people. Because of "terrorists" governments can cajole or force citizens into giving up privacy and other rights and freedoms, which they never will get back. It also shows how "globalization" far from spreading freedom, can just as easily be used to stifle it. If the only way this society works is by turning into East Germany then we need to tear it down and build something new.
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