The anti-encryption legislation joke is still doing the rounds – one year on

By Jordan

Downunder, encryption-related friction is rife as the government continues to willingly erode its citizen’s right to private communication – and do so with a smile. Blow up the balloons, hang up the streamers and open up your private communications to outside threats, as it’s time…

Downunder, encryption-related friction is rife as the government continues to willingly erode its citizen’s right to private communication – and do so with a smile.

Blow up the balloons, hang up the streamers and open up your private communications to outside threats, as it’s time to celebrate.  The anti-encryption legislation has turned one and the global joke is still on us one year on. 

On 6 December 2018, Prime Minister Morrison, behind feigned concern for the safety of New Years Eve revellers, rushed a bill into parliament that gave law enforcement the power to compel tech companies to disable encryption protections in order to better pursue terrorists and other organised criminals. 

“This was a very important legislation to give police and security agencies the ability to get into encrypted communications,” said Morrison, before supporting his unashamedly draconian statement with “Things like WhatsApp, things like that which are used by terrorists and organised criminals and indeed paedophile rings to do their evil work.”

The bill, an amendment to the Telecommunications Act 1997, was lazily titled the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018. It’s a document writ broadly and nebulously; its clearest (and most controversial) inclusion involves the ability to intercept messages sent using end-to-end encryption. During a criminal investigation, law enforcement can skirt securities and gain unfettered access to WhatsApp, iMessage and Telegram. That criminal investigation has to carry only a maximum penalty of three years’ prison or more, which proves the net is far wider than for those suspected of terrorism and paedophilia.

In any case, the fact of the matter is that millions of devices belonging to hardworking citizens were made open to threats, so that the government could target a mere few. Internationally, this was the first bill of its specific kind and was ridiculed by the world’s leading cryptographers and security experts. 

A year more severe

Considering the bill was universally panned and cited as technological legislation created by non-technical people, you’d think that the government would slow down, take stock and consider the repercussions of their ill-considered decisions. Instead, they doubled down by introducing an additional, equally preposterous amendment to the amendment, titled the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2019. Talk about digging yourself deeper. 

The new amendment relaxed the definition of ‘interception agency’ to include state-based anti-corruption bodies, including the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, Independent Commission Against Corruption (NSW), Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission of Victoria, Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission and the list goes on and on (and on). Instead of finding a way to limit the number of Australian devices open to invasions of privacy thanks to the legislation, the government radically increased the number of people permitted to invade that privacy. 

Cross my heart and hope to spy

The past 12 months have merely underlined what we already know – our government does not care about our privacy and security; despite how much they pretend to do so. Tech companies are hanging their heads in embarrassment, forced to (further) betray their customers’ digital sovereignty. More and more citizens are negotiating a sinking feeling that prying eyes are everywhere. Some are crying out for privacy-first alternatives, but the majority of Australian’s have taken to self-censorship. They are resigned to the fact that the online world and freedom are mutually exclusive and will limit their browsing and doctor their communications accordingly, knowing full well that they have done and will do nothing wrong. 

Those who are actually celebrating today’s anniversary would no doubt insist that giving up personal privacy for the sake of national security is more than a fair trade. And while national security is important, it should not be the sole factor in informing governmental decision-making. Prior to the implementation of both the 2018 bill and its 2019 counterpart, ScoMo and his crew should have better weighed the risk vs. benefit, the intent vs. the implication – and enlisted the counsel of industry experts and leading academics (AKA people who actually know what they’re doing). One can only dream. 

Instead, Australians are stuck with outrageous legislation that has minimal impact on national security and unprecedented impact on our own. Each and every one of us are wired up, cast by the government in the role of unofficial informant. We are pawns in their game, mere numbers used to satisfy their interests. When we get caught in the crossfire, we’re mere collateral damage. And with every additional amendment and amendment to an amendment, we descend deeper into the clutches of anxiety, paranoia and unintentional comedy. 

The joke’s still on us. 

Enjoy!

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