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.
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.
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.