While the Federal government continues to pursue its agenda of trying to convince tech companies to not give them a backdoor but provide access to encrypted communications – however that’s meant to work – it’s worth thinking about how law enforcement uses data today and why access to more data may not be the answer.
The two most spoken about domestic terrorism incidents of recent times are the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney and the recent attack on Bourke Street in Melbourne. In both cases, it seems to me, that the police had lots of information about the potential risks but lacked the cohesion to put the pieces together.
If we look at the more recent case on Bourke Street, the perpetrator, Hassan Khalid Shire Ali, had recently been put on bail, was on terrorist watch lists and had a cancelled passport because of links to terrorist organisations. He had also reported hallucinating. In other words, there were plenty of signs that the offender was likely to be planning some sort of criminal act.
I can’t see that there was a lack of data in this case.
The case of Man Haron Monis was not dissimilar. He had made significant threats before, against Qantas, he had sent abusive letters to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, had been, but was removed, from watchlists and had a history of violent crime.
Again, there wasn’t a lack of data. What the police forces lacked was an integrated model, across federal and state police data.
In both cases the police the police knew they were dealing with someone who had made threats, with recent, escalating criminal history, were exhibiting unstable behaviour and had past associations with known terrorism organisations.
It’s time for the law enforcement community to admit that the current system is broken. Surely, when someone on a Federal watchlist is placed on bail by a state-based police force and the courts, an alarm bell should ring somewhere? And while it might not lead to a conviction, perhaps a visit from the local police letting the person know that they are under surveillance as a result of their recent actions and being on a watchlist might discourage them from committing a crime.
The federal government is making a big deal about wanting access to encrypted data. And tech companies, rightly, are railing against the move. Any move that weakens security for everyone is retrograde – something Blackberry (or, more accurately RIM, the original company name) learned the hard way.
Although Blackberry was facing massive challenges from the rising tide of iOS and Android devices, and a massive patent lawsuit that cost them over half a billion dollars, the company’s management decided to share their encryption keys to the Canadian government.
At the time, all Blackberry messaging traffic across the world was funnelled through those servers. Suddenly, trust in the company was irrevocably damaged. And a company facing major challenges was dealt a substantial blow.
You can be that there isn’t a tech company on the planet that wants to weaken their systems at the behest of a government.
The government and a weak opposition supported the introduction of metadata retention legislation. And now they are pursuing the weakening of protections that are relied on by businesses and individuals around the world. And, the reality is, bad guys will use encrypted communications systems regardless of the laws made by parliament. The tools to develop such applications are widely available and implementation is getting easier all the time.
And, in any case, there’s limited evidence to suggest that law enforcement could effectively use such data to prevent a crime. Which should be the goal – to protect people from a crime occurring and not pick up the pieces after.