Even Learning About Encryption In Australia Will Soon Be Illegal

Even Learning About Encryption In Australia Will Soon Be Illegal

You might not think that an academic computer science course could be classified as an export of military technology. But under the Defence Trade Controls Act — which passed into law in April, and will come into force next year — there is a real possibility that even seemingly innocuous educational and research activities could fall foul of Australian defence export control laws.

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Under these laws, such “supplies of technology” come under a censorship regime involving criminal penalties of up to ten years imprisonment. How could this be?

The story begins with the Australian government’s Defence and Strategic Goods List (DSGL). This list specifies goods considered important to national defence and security, and which are therefore tightly controlled.

Regulation of military weapons is not a particularly controversial idea. But the DSGL covers much more than munitions. It also includes many “dual-use” goods, which are goods with both military and civilian uses. This includes substantial sections on chemicals, electronics and telecommunications, among other things.

Disturbingly, the DSGL risks veering wildly in the direction of over-classification, covering activities that are completely unrelated to military or intelligence applications.

To illustrate, I will focus on the university sector and one area of interest to mathematicians like myself: encryption. But similar considerations apply to a wide range of subject material, and commerce, industry and government.

Encryption: an essential tool for privacy

Encryption is the process of encoding a message so that it can be sent privately. Decryption is the process of decoding it, so that it can be read. Encryption and decryption are two aspects of cryptography, the study of secure communication.

As with many technologies subject to dual-use regulation, the first question is whether encryption should be covered at all.

Once the preserve of spies and governments, encryption algorithms have now become an essential part of modern life. We use them almost every time we go online.

Encryption is used routinely by consumers to guard against identity theft, by businesses to ensure the security of transactions, by hospitals to ensure the privacy of medical records, and many other organisations. Given that email has about as much security as a postcard, encryption is the electronic equivalent of an envelope.

Encryption is perhaps dual-use in the narrow sense that it is useful to both military/intelligence agencies as well as civilians. But so are other relatively mundane technologies like cars.

Moreover, since the Edward Snowden revelations — and even much earlier for those who were paying attention — essentially everyone knows they are subject to mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency, along with its Five Eyes partners, including Australia.

While states have no right to privacy, an individual’s right to privacy is considered a fundamental human right. And in today’s world, encryption is essential for individual citizens to safeguard this human right. Strict control of encryption as dual-use technology, then, would not only be a misuse of state power, but would represent the curtailment of a fundamental right.

How the DSGL covers encryption

Nonetheless, let’s assume for the purposes of argument that there is a justification for regarding at least some aspects of cryptography as dual-use, and consider how the DSGL covers encryption.

The DSGL contains detailed technical specifications. Very roughly, it covers encryption above a certain “strength” level, as measured by technical parameters such as “key length” or “field size”.

The practical question is how high the bar is set: how powerful must encryption be in order to be classified as dual-use?

The bar is currently set low. For instance, software engineers debate whether they should use 2048 or 4096 bits for the RSA algorithm. But the DSGL classifies anything over 512 bits as dual-use. In reality, the only cryptography not covered by the DSGL is cryptography so weak that it would be imprudent to use.

Moreover, the DSGL doesn’t just cover encryption software: it also covers systems, electronics and equipment used to implement, develop, produce or test it.

In short, the DSGL casts an extremely wide net, potentially catching open source privacy software, information security research and education, and the entire computer security industry in its snare.

Most ridiculous, though, are some badly flawed technicalities. As I have argued before, the specifications are so imprecise that they potentially include a little algorithm you learned at primary school called division. If so, then division has become a potential weapon, and your calculator (or smartphone, computer, or any electronic device) is a potential delivery system for it.

These issues are not unique to Australia; the DSGL encryption provisions are copied almost verbatim from an international arms control agreement. What is unique to Australia is the strict level of regulation.

Criminal offences for research and teaching?

The Australian Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) regulates the DSGL and enacts a censorship regime with severe criminal penalties.

The DTCA prohibits the “supply” of DSGL technology to anyone outside Australia without a permit. The “supply” need not involve money, and can consist of merely providing access to technology. It also prohibits “publishing” DSGL technology, but after recent amendments, this offence only applies to half the DSGL: munitions, not dual-use technologies.

What is “supply” then? The law does not define the word precisely, but the Department of Defence suggests that merely explaining an algorithm could constitute “intangible supply”. If so, then surely teaching DSGL material, or collaborating on research about it, would be covered.

University education is a thoroughly international and online affair — not to mention research — so any such “supply”, on any DSGL topic, is likely to end up overseas on a regular basis.

Outside of academia, what about programmers working on international projects such as Tor, providing free software so citizens can enjoy their privacy rights online? Or network security professionals working with overseas counterparts?

Examples of innocuous, or even admirable, activities potentially criminalised by this law are easily multiplied. Such activities must seek government approval or face criminal charges -— an outrageous attack on academic freedom, to say the least.

There are exemptions, which have been expanded under recent amendments. But they are patchy, uncertain and dangerously limited.

For instance, public domain material and “basic scientific research” are exempted. However, researchers, by definition, create new material not in the public domain. And according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “basic scientific research” is a narrow term, which excludes research with practical objectives. Lecturers, admirably, often include new research in teaching material. In such circumstances none of these exemptions will be of assistance.

Another exemption covers supplies of dual-use technology made “preparatory to publication”, apparently to protect researchers. But this exemption will provide little comfort to researchers aiming for applications or commercialisation, and none at all to educators or industry. A further exemption is made for oral supplies of DSGL technology, so if computer science lecturers can teach without writing (giving a whole new meaning to “off the books”) they might be safe.

There is no explicit exemption for education. None for public interest material. And indeed, the government clearly envisions universities seeking permits to teach students DSGL material — and, by implication, criminal charges if they do not.

On a rather different note, the DTCA specifically enables the Australian and US militaries to share technology.

Thus, an Australian professor emailing an American collaborator or postgraduate student about a new applied cryptography idea, or explaining a new variant on a cryptographic algorithm on a blackboard in a recorded lecture broadcast over the internet — despite having nothing explicitly to do with military or intelligence applications — may expose herself to criminal liability. At the same time, munitions flow freely across the Pacific. Such is Australia’s military export regime.

Brief reprieve

There is nothing wrong in principle with government regulation of military technology. But the net is cast too broadly in the DSGL, especially in the case of encryption. The regulatory approach of the DTCA’s permit regime is effectively one of censorship with criminal penalties for breaches.

The result is vast overreach. Even if the Department of Defence did not exercise its censorship powers, the mere possibility is enough for a chilling effect stifling the free flow of ideas and progress.

The DTCA was passed in 2012, with the criminal offences scheduled to come into effect in May 2015. Thankfully, emergency amendments that passed into law in April this year have provided one year’s reprieve.

Despite those amendments, the laws remain paranoid. The DSGL vastly over-classifies technologies as dual-use, including essentially all sensible uses of encryption. The DTCA potentially criminalises an enormous range of legitimate research and development activity as a supply of dual-use technology, dangerously attacking academic freedom — and freedom in general — in the process.The ConversationDaniel Mathews is Lecturer in Mathematics at Monash University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • I’m pretty sure Windows has several different levels of encryption built in across the various builds. Pretty sure most DVD’s and Blu Rays have encryption too. Hell, I’d bet that modern cars these days have some sort of encryption in their computers so you have to use their expensive tools to communicate with them.

    My phone is encrypted, so is my tablet. They came like that out of the box. I bet a bunch of the Google services I use are encrypted. So are the banking services I use.

    How many of these are over the threshold?

    • Exactly why governments and the ministers for whatever portfolio should actually you know, be learner-ed in their particular areas

    • I could be very wrong on this but if they say we cant use anything over 512bit i’m pretty sure HTTPS would be outlawed

      • You sure are right! I wouldn’t trust any website with a key strength lower than that

    • You know all those “patches” Microsoft release on Tuesdays? The ones where they fix code bugs?
      Imagine a world where it was illegal to even CHECK for a fault in the code that implements encryption. Never mind reporting it. Every bug found by “white hat” security experts would still be out there, for the “black hats” to exploit.

      Your phone, tablet, PC – how many times have you updated the software?

  • I’m amazed this passed without consideration to the broader implications. Everybody quick, forget SSL and TLS ever existed.

    • Let’s see… New VPN connection… No encryption necessary… Send and receive personal information…

      Setup new WIFI connection… No encryption necessary… Who wants to use my internet?

      Setup new RADIUS… No encryption necessary… Disabling RADIUS…

  • Ahaha, maybe one of those examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences in action, or just one of those lesser-known laws that are never enforced which governments like to have in their pocket so that they can nail a citizen with it if they can’t get them on what they’re really after.

  • Oz has come a long way in their ever-quickening pursuit of being seen and counted upon to be one of the seriously smart population centers of the planet. In that blazingly fast pursuit, some shortcuts may have been taken and steps skipped – knowingly or not – that let some safeguards fall thru the precerbial cracks… The intentional criminalization of the pursuit of any type of knowledge is flawed but this level of restriction would be counter to everything free societies strive to accomplish every instant they exist. Oz is no different.

    IF the national government has actually passed a statute with that intent – to criminalize the learning about encryption – then the national government needs to be replaced. We, as a species, WILL NOT TOLERATE that level of repression and should repel any effort to introduce that level of degradation into our existance.

  • They will have to end advance courses in mathematics, even multiplication. Read Abstract Algebra, group and ring theory, study the theories of Fermat, Gauchy and Abel, and the old indians. This is applied math, and beside encryption, can be used to spread datasets that comes in cluster into uniform distributions (too many are called “John” and “Tim” – and avoid searching through everyone all the time). The next is to generate data – reference codes. This cannot be covered by any military secrecy act, or policed. If you want to learn about mathematics, you cannot say that “only multiplication up to 12” – that will place Australians as the dumbest ones around denied common knowledge.
    If the military needs to poke around and study what goes on, they will have to learn how to decipher, and stop wimping of people that know how. Those who are good in math can outsmart the NSA and encrypt so difficult that they will use years to decipher it – and it is just about time that they also know more than multiplication to 12.

    • Just white out all those chapters. Ban prime numbers and clock math too. Solved.

    • Well, intelligence is on the government’s shit-list.

      Acting Chief Commissioner Tim Cartwright said it was important the community remained alert. “If you do see anything suspicious, if you see young people taking an unusual interest in what would normally be household devices, electrical batteries, chemicals, then you need to be concerned,” he said.
      Young people taking an interest in how things work is cause for concern indeed.

  • Hands up how many people actually read the Act instead of jumping to conclusions…?

    IANAL, but it would only be applicable to new cyprographic functions developed within Australia, and only if they haven’t been released publically in a journal / text / etc. University courses etc are fine. Anything open-source is fine. Anything that people know about already is fine. Anything that has been put onto the internet is fine.

    Quoting: http://www.defence.gov.au/deco/DSGL.asp

    The DSGL contains a number of exemptions that can apply to technology that may otherwise be controlled. These include technology that is::

    •’in the public domain’ – if the technology is already available to the public, for example, in publications, product brochures and public blogs, websites, podcasts or databases, then it is not controlled. This exemption applies to all software and technology in the DSGL

    • That maybe the case, but how about the exchange of new encryption ideas as per the example given in the article. What constitutes ‘new” developments?
      Are you saying that post-grad research and publication of a new encryption approach is ok, provided that it is published before the DSGL find out about it? But if DSGL know what you are doing and then you publish, that means trouble?
      It’s like the TPP and “metadata” retention – vague assurances and “trust us” platitudes are not reassuring at all.

      • It’s nothing like the TPP and metadata retention.

        If you are really concerned then go and read the guide (http://www.defence.gov.au/deco/_Master/docs/Consultation-Docs/Guide-to-DTC-Bill.pdf) & the Act. It deals with publishing and the corresponding exchange of ideas (hint, publication and pre-publication supply are not regulated).

        People also seem to be ignoring the fact that Australia already has legislation like this in place already. This Act is merely a revision in order to align us with international agreements.

  • Are they serious about this? With almost all data in storage these days, if noone learns about encryption or how to code and everything, then we might as well make all information public and throw privacy out the window!

  • If the information or tech is already in the public domain then it is not controlled under the guidelines – so things like OpenPGP etc. will not be illegal

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