The Government's Encryption Bill May Be On Shaky Ground

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The government has been pushing hard to have their Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 rushed to parliament, just a day after the joint parliamentary committee finishes reviewing the draft legislation and listening to experts on what the impacts, positive and negative, of the proposed laws might be. But will the new laws actually be passed?

Over the last few years, law changes that make it easer for law enforcement to access data that they say is valuable in the fights against terrorism, international money laundering, child exploitation and other serious crimes have sailed through the parliament with support from both the Liberal National Coalition and the Labor Party. But these new laws seem to be a step too far for the left side of the political spectrum.

I've already argued that our law enforcement agencies don't deserve access to more data and we've had overseas experts tell us that the laws will do nothing to hinder criminals while making us all less secure.

But with the government keen to pass the Bill this week, bipartisan support has broken down. The shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, said in a letter to the Attorney General Christian Porter that "The potential implications this has for weakening online security for all Australians … are profound, and surely warrant further consideration".

Labor Senator Penny Wong says the Government refused to consider a compromise that would limit access to encrypted data to cases involving child sex abuse and terrorism. And she adds that the push for this legislation to be fast tracked is really a distraction designed to move the focus away from the terrible election result in Victoria and the defection of Julia Banks to the cross-bench. And there have been accusations of the government using the recent attack in Melbourne as a way of promoting the urgency of the laws - despite state and federal law enforcement agencies being well aware of the risks of a watch-listed offender, on bail with a suspended passport.

Let's not forget that the companies making the products that use encryption would either have to release versions of their software for Australians that would be weaker than international versions (and somehow stop Australians from accessing the non-localised versions) or they would have to modify their systems so that they held universal decryption keys thereby weakening the entire security of their systems.

It's pertinent to note that the main drivers of this policy are the Prime Minister Scott Morrison - a former adverting exec who seems to like to govern by slogan ("Stop the boats") - and Peter Dutton - a former police officer who sees the world through the lens of law enforcement and criminality. And the words of a raft of experts seem to wash over them.

Do criminals use encrypted communications channels to coordinate illegal activity? The answer is clearly yes. But so do the rest of us - whether we realise it or not. Ask someone who doesn't understand whether their messaging platform is encrypted and they might not know. But WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, iMessage and countless others use strong, end-to-end encryption to ensure no-one can snoop on their communications.

Something I've learned over recent weeks is that phoning and writing to your local member over this matter is important. Most representatives will listen to constituents who contact them. And while you might not change your representatives mind yourself, if enough people call then they may think twice before grabbing their rubber stamp.


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