Why The War On Encryption And Privacy Has Me Worried

In 2013, privacy advocate and whistle blower Edward Snowden revealed the extent that government agencies around the world were tapping into technology to spy on individuals. We are all a lot wiser for it and many people now use encryption on their electronic devices to secure communication and information on their machines. But global governments are now waging a battle against end-user device encryption.

Spying on laptop image from Shutterstock

New York assemblyman Matthew Titone recently introduced the New York Bill to the Senate that would ban smartphones with unbreakable encryption from being sold in the state. This puts the onus on manufacturers to create backdoors on their devices.

Considering most mainstream devices such as the Apple iPhone and a swathe of Google Android devices from a variety of manufacturers now have an encryption function, this bill would prevent the sale of those phones.

You might think this bill is ridiculous - it is. In fact, the chances of this bill being passed is slim, for a multitude of reasons. But let's not dismiss this as something that is only remotely plausible in the "Great US of A".

Just remember that the Australian Government has attempted to bring in an internet filter, are part of the "Five Eyes" alliance that spied on citizens and has now introduced a loathsome data retention law that infringes on the privacy of every Australian. Right now ISPs are compelled to collect metadata on all its users in the name of law enforcement and national security.

The Federal Government assured us that only an approved list of agencies can access the data. Yet, it has been revealed that over sixty government agencies have already made requests to the Attorney General to access the stored metadata, including some that seemingly have nothing to do with keeping our citizens safe. Australia Post? Bankstown City Council? The Victorian Taxi Services Commission?

What the?

The point is, it’s a fallacy to assume that what's happening abroad won't happen in Australia. We live in crazy times. Terrorist incidents like the Paris and Jakarta attacks have bred widespread fear among the masses. This is giving world governments ammunition to try and tear down encryption because the technology could potentially be used by terrorists to communicate and co-ordiate attacks.

In an open letter to world leaders from technologists, companies and organisations calling for the rejection of any laws or policies that undermine encryption:

Our safety and privacy depend on secure communications tools and technologies. Encryption protects our most personal and sensitive information: our communications, bank information, medical records, and more.

The letter comes as many countries are mulling laws to undermine encryption. The United Kingdom is looking at requiring online messaging services to build backdoors into their offerings so government agencies can intercept encrypted communications. China didn't hesitate in making its stance clear on encryption with the government passing an anti-terrorism law that requires technology companies to comply with request for information including surrendering encryption keys.

In Australia, the Federal Government hasn't really taken a formal stance on encryption but the decisions made by governments around the world will have some impact on what happens here. Considering the unsavoury data retention laws actually passed the Federal Parliament, at this stage, I'm not ruling anything out.

But just remember that the right to encrypt our data is one that we should fight for. As David Kaye, UN special rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, puts it:

"Encryption and anonymity, and the security concepts behind them, provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age."


Comments

    This world frightens me sometimes. I understand the need to fight terrorism, but as Garth Marenghi put it:

    "I think what this episode shows above all is that the human spirit cannot be overcome. You know, as a writer, if you took away my paper, I would write on my heart. If you take away my ink, I'd write on the wind. (Pauses) It wouldn't be an ideal way to work."

    You break encryption, they'll find another way to communicate and gather. The Streisand effect is a mighty powerful thing.

    soo when will Lifehacker, gizmodo etc turn on https ???

      The honest answer is: we're working on it. We've pushed for it with our IT team internally and there are still a few things that needs to be sorted out in the back end for this to happen.

      I'm as anxious for this to happen as you are!

    In Australia, the Federal Government hasn’t really taken a formal stance on encryption but the decisions made by governments around the world will have some impact on what happens here. Considering the unsavoury data retention laws actually passed the Federal Parliament, at this stage, I’m not ruling anything out.

    Not to mention that the laws were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The 'two party system' virtually indicates practically anything in the same vein could be similarly rubber-stamped into law.

    And the list of agencies is utterly ridiculous. Every single example I've heard of from these agencies sound exactly like the kind of cases that should require a warrant. There is no reason these should be allowed unfettered access to vast violations of privacy as a matter of routine without any oversight. It's disgusting that they think they should.

    It would be convenient to utterly disregard privacy, for sure... but that is NOT an acceptable reason to do it.

    In the US election, Bernie Sanders is an independent candidate for the election. The reason I bring him up, even though he is an outside chance to get the Presidency, is that he is an advocate for personal privacy and freedom of the press and internet. He's been fighting the good fight for decades and is quite vociferous with his opinions. If he gets in, then all this crap will go away, along with all the myriad other things that are wrong. Hopefully, Australia will take the hint and follow suit.

    Last edited 21/01/16 4:04 pm

      Why do you put his name in scare quotes?

        Never heard of scare quotes, had to look it up, I was just highlighting the fact that he is important. Why what difference does it make to you? Is grammar that important in the scheme of things?

        Last edited 21/01/16 3:10 pm

          It can be, depending on how nuanced the message you want to deliver. Inverted commas - especially in colloquial usage - are used to indicate a certain degree of skepticism about the phrase being captured within them, to distance the user. Doing that here kind of changes the message a bit.

          This being the Internet, another factor that makes these nuances more important is Poe's Law. You might think that your intent is obvious, but the presence of people articulating so many opposing viewpoints with similar sincerity means that without these kinds of context cues in punctuation, there's no telling whether someone was making a mistake in communication, or is genuinely, sincerely presenting an unreasonable viewpoint.

            FINE! I fixed it! Happy now? Can we get back to point of my comment? ;)

            Last edited 21/01/16 4:06 pm

              Hah, yes. It IS an interesting point, didn't mean to distract from that. As much as I love some of his policies, I don't think he'll get in. I think the narrative of the times is that it's time for a female president and Hillary has not only run before but has great references and experience. Bernie can't win without securing the Democratic nomination and I just don't think he'll get it.

              I think we'll overcome the hurdle of sexism before we overcome the hurdle of corporate-induced wealth inequality.

              It's a nice idea, though.

                Trump and the rest of the Republican candidates are batshit crazy, so either Sanders or Clinton are far superior. However, they are both very old now, so it's a shame they don't have a female Obama to give it a try. Maybe his wife should try next time around?

                  Yeah, being a pretty ancient 65 I guess I'm getting a bit old for sites like these too (just jokin' ;) ... Still, it would be nice if there were a few Scott Ludlum (my choice for Australian Benevolent Dictator Re All Things Tech... And Everything Else Too) type candidates in the US... perhaps they are all too busy making money and/or avoiding the NSA/DOJ etc to worry about the lunatic asylum and paid lobbyist clone circus that is US federal politics, and increasingly ours too...

        Maybe is a pseudonym that massive gun-freak Bernie (not his real name) is using to avoid being tracked by the NSA.

        Last edited 21/01/16 4:43 pm

    Thanks SL, one of the best summations of the situation yet!

    I recently read an article that indicated Wi-Fi modems would soon not have the ability to flash the OS - the stated reason being flashing the OS allowed people to set the Wi-Fi to higher power levels and/or to operate outside of the band approved for that location. Unfortunately that would also preclude beefing up the encryption and/or blocking Wi-Fi back-doors installed by manufacturers. It seems privacy will soon be a thing of the past. Maybe for a start we should cease using Wi-Fi instead using hard-wiring.

    What is the "What the" all about regarding the metadata laws?

    Surely people are happy that the agencies don't have the access they had before - that's why they're asking for it back.

    Remember that all the service providers did before and do now under the laws keep your metadata. Before there were no laws at all governing who could look at it, you were at the mercy of whatever the service provider's internal policy was.

    All access was taken away and we have a new process for gaining access. We are being told who has asked for that access. We can assume most/all had access before and want it back.

    Most interesting would be, who was accessing before that we don't know about because they haven't yet asked for access?

    Um, no they did not routinely store Metadata...Or, at least if they did, they did NOT do so for two years (why would they, when they would have no legal right to utilise the data commercially?) The point of the laws, which most people seem to conveniently overlook, is that one can be prosecuted retrospectively for something they did two years in the past (such as downloading GOT, for example).
    The laws will not prevent terrorism (or any other crime). At best, they will allow a prosecution for an act which has already occurred...and most such acts will be related to copyright infringement.

    Terrorists (and other hard-core criminals) will "do what they do", and be largely unaffected by these laws. Everyday people like you and I will be the ones most affected, through both retrospective prosecutions, and increased ISP/surveillance charges.

    Terrorism and the political obsession with 'national security' are only part of the agenda of our western governments. Little is said of the desire of these governments to control the internet which they see as a huge threat to their ability to contain and control the masses within the geographic boundary of each country. They argue all sort of reasons from security through to commerce, taxation, and regulatory compliance of goods and services acquired over the internet with local laws. While these reasons are legitimate to some extent, they do not get the same media attention as security & terrorist matters and so few people consider them to be major reasons our governments want to have access to our communications, activities and data.

    I also take the view that, as a voter, I have not authorised my government to have access to my data without my permission. Since it (my government) hasn't asked, I'm not going to voluntarily give them the key so they can use it any time they wish without my knowledge. What an absurd notion!

    Last edited 28/01/16 4:45 pm

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