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?
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."