In the west, platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram have come to lead the way for how people communicate with one-another. The all encompassing WeChat platform offering the same and much more for those living in China. Though like for any advancement, it would be wise to consider the downfalls of living in an technological era demanding ever greater connectivity.
Which makes us ponder: How do we protect our privacy and civil liberties without compromising our safety and security? Each country or continent seem to have their own technique. As shown by the documents released through Edward Snowden, the US government and agencies seem to think mass surveillance is the way to go. Earlier in September (2018) the European Court of Human Rights found UK governments interception of data to be unlawful: “The UK has a long history of surveillance — and it continues to be unlawful”. In China, the citizen scoring system has been referred to as a “digital dictatorship”, determining who is worthy of their liberties.
Australia’s Demand To Bypass Encryption
Just as we were about to bypass this dystopian oppression by such means as encrypted channels of communication — like those offered by Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram — offering end-to-end encryption (E2EE), Australia wants to force communication service providers to give the authorities a backdoor into their software for the sake of — the commonly used term — “National Security”.
“The federal government has long been pushing for law enforcement agencies to have access to encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Signal. The government, with the support of Labor [major center-left political party], want to force tech companies to alter their apps so that communications can be monitored.” — Josh Butler, 10 Daily, 2018
On a national level, backdoors would allow the “country’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to demand access to end-to-end encrypted digital communications” as mentioned by an article published by Wired titled “Australia’s Encryption-busting Law Could Impact Global Privacy”.
The ramifications of The “Assistance and Access Bill, 2018” which was passed in July by both major political parties within Australia — Australia’s major Coalition and Labor parties — will effectively influence both the national and global stage. The opposition party that once opposed the bill — known as the Labor Party — “had to be dragged to the table” and backed the legislation as an emergency measure out of concern extremists could target Christmas-New Year crowds”.
“Though Australia will become the testing ground, technologists and privacy advocates warn that the law will swiftly impact global policy. All of Australia’s intelligence allies — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, known collectively as the Five Eyes — have spent decades lobbying for these mechanisms.” Lily Hay Newman, Wired, 2018
This newly introduced law comes with a hefty fine for those who violate or do not comply with the set out policies. For companies the fine can be up to $7.3M USD ($10M AUD) and individuals could face prison time.
This controversial bill which has now become law as of last Thursday (6th of December 2018) — at the final parliament session for the year — seems to be mostly supported by politicians and government officials who lack an oversight on the consequences, technological shortfalls and other important aspects.
Apple had written to the Parliament in October (2018) with a warning: “We also challenge the idea that weakening encryption is necessary to aid law enforcement.” further adding that “it would be wrong to weaken security for millions of law-abiding customers in order to investigate the very few who pose a threat.”
The Prime Minister of Australia — Scott Morrison — begs to differ. His boogeyman theory tells a different story. Morrison mentioned “things like WhatsApp, things like that which are used by terrorists and organized criminals and indeed pedophile rings to do their evil work.’’
This is coming from the leader of the same political party that was led previously by Malcolm Turnbull — former Prime Minister of Australia — who said: “I use Wickr as an application. I use a number of others. I use WhatsApp … because they’re superior over-the-top messaging platforms.”
Morrison is the leader of a country that only apologized for the evil they did to the Indigenous Aboriginals in 2008, over 200 years after the first fleet arrived in Australia. The same government which has a no-refugee policy referred to as a humanitarian disaster.
How do people feel about this? Well, mostly outraged. Many — including global experts in cryptography — see this as a ridiculous request to those building applications and to the industry as a whole.
Bruce Schneier — an internationally renowned security technologist — had published the following remark on his website: “Never mind that the law 1) would not achieve the desired results because all the smart “terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile rings” will simply use a third-party encryption app, and 2) would make everyone else in Australia less secure…”.
Others see this as a virus that could infect the global tech scene, warning that it could cripple Australia’s tech industry: “There are concerns that such companies could pull out of Australia entirely, rather than work under such a system.”.
Is Australia The First?
Unfortunately, this is not the first time a nation demands and receives access to what was believed to be encrypted communication. In 2013 Microsoft had been found to be giving direct access to national agencies, as investigated by The Guardian, “Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted”.
The issue is far greater than just communication, as Microsoft is a tech giant offering many other platforms widely used around the world. Microsoft had also worked with the FBI to give the NSA “easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide”. So is it worth it? Should we give up our privacy, allow our personal information and data to be accessible for the sake of our security? Are there no better techniques or methods?
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” — Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, 1756
Does Mass Surveillance Keep us Safe?
An article published by Wired titled “Mass Spying Isn’t Just Intrusive — it’s Ineffective” discusses details from events such as the London suicide bombings (2005), The Boston Marathon bombing (2013), the Paris shootings (2015) and other devastating events, and argues that “broad proactive surveillance is no panacea against attacks”.
In the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, despite several attempts by the Russian Government to warn the FBI and later the CIA — mass surveillance played no role in stopping the attack — the tragic event took place and as a result people’s lives were taken.
“Targeted surveillance of people known to be connected to terrorism is the best way to find terrorists. Indeed, almost every major terrorist attack on Western soil in the past fifteen years was committed by someone already on the government’s radar for one or another reason.” Jennifer Stisa Granick, Wired, 2017
Just like a toxic relationship where an insecure partner demands to see your messages, conversations and the reason for newly added friends in the hope of keeping the relationship safe from outsiders, the government too is wanting a toxic relationship with its citizens. Just like a toxic relationship, it is up to the individual to walk away. It is one thing to be oppressed and another to allow it to happen.
We live in an increasingly connected world with greater opportunities for people to work online — using co-working and digital nomad locations — which are popping up all around the world. We have open-source, encrypted and freely accessible applications as well as blockchain protocols which are being designed to remove the middle man that can be strong armed.
Just as the gates of liberty shut down on us, other gates have opened to give us the ability to exercise one of our greatest liberties: choice. Regardless of whether our choices affect us or future generations, we must not be weak in deciding which society, principles, laws we would like to adhere to.
Perhaps the most important outcome from surveillance laws is that they would essentially increase the demand for open-source software, applications that do not require an intermediary which can be compromised. As a result the global alliances seeking to limit liberty are in a way helping us get there quicker.
“A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It’s a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity.” — Jimmy Carter, A government as good as its people, 1977
Image from Pixabay