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Australia Passes Encryption Law Every Tech Expert Says Will Lead To Disaster

author

Stephen Luntz

Freelance Writer

clockDec 7 2018, 11:46 UTC
keyboard worm

The Australian government appears to be under the impression if they create vulnerabilities in software, their worms are the only ones that will make use of them. wk1003mike/Shutterstock

Australia has adopted legislation to create “backdoors” in encrypted software so police and national security authorities can access online conversations. IT workers and commentators, however, argue the new laws will create a string of unintended consequences that could make Australia a tech pariah, with companies refusing to produce or sell their products in the country.

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Law enforcement agencies are always keen to eavesdrop on suspects. As plotting of illegal activities moved from easily-tapped telephones to online spaces, agencies worldwide have been frustrated by encryption technologies that prevent listening in.

Last year the Australian government announced an intention to address this. As soon as the idea was announced in principle, pretty much everyone pointed to a problem: conversations protected from government snooping are also protected from everyone else. If the proper authorities can access messages, there is very little to stop anyone else from doing the same thing. The law applies not only to messenger apps, but to online banking.

This fundamental point resulted in the extraordinary response from then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

The issue appeared to die away for a while, but in the last week the government produced anti-encryption legislation, and expressed an intention to race it through the parliament without the normal consideration so it would be in force before Christmas. Parliamentarians were given just a few hours to consider 173 changes to the legislation. Legal scholars pointed to the dangers of passing complex laws with almost no opportunity to consider how it would work in practice.

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Some critics object to giving government agencies so much power, believing the right to privacy should outweigh potential benefits for crime prevention. Others are concerned about governments abusing these powers, spying on legal, but inconvenient, opponents. Most criticism, however, has focused on the diabolical mess those in the sector expect the law to create.

Among other features, the laws apply not only to tech companies, but their employees. Many government agencies can order workers to install backdoors for them, while banning the programmer from telling their employers. A programmer who refuses an order faces 10 years in prison but if they accept, one would not be allowed to tell their bosses about what they have done, nor explain time spent creating vulnerabilities when their employers expect them to be doing something else.

Moreover, any software that can legally be sold in Australia must be highly vulnerable to any criminal capable of finding the government-mandated backdoor. Tech insiders anticipate any software wholly or partially created in Australia will become unsaleable in the rest of the world, killing off a $3 billion export industry.

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What is less clear is how international software companies will respond. Will they choose to allow unsafe versions of their product to be sold exclusively in Australia, or will they abandon the market, leaving a technological backwater?

Ministers branded those who raised these questions as soft on terrorism and pedophilia.

The coalition government no longer holds a majority in either house of the Australian parliament, and initially, the opposition Labor Party vowed to add a series of amendments that, they claimed, would address many of the concerns the industry had been raising.

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However, on Thursday, Labor voted against their own amendments as the government proclaimed any delay would leave the nation vulnerable over the holiday season. Although Labor is still expressing an intention to bring the amendments back when parliament sits again in February, the laws currently stand.


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