Wednesday, 12 December 2018 19:17

ASD chief hits out at 'myths' surrounding encryption law Featured

Mike Burgess: "Many of the claims about the 'dangerous' nature of the Act are hyperbolic, inaccurate and influenced by self-interest, rather than the national interest." Mike Burgess: "Many of the claims about the 'dangerous' nature of the Act are hyperbolic, inaccurate and influenced by self-interest, rather than the national interest." Courtesy YouTube

Myths have been spread about the Federal Government's newly passed encryption law, according to the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, Mike Burgess, who claims that there has been "considerable inaccurate commentary" and has set out to correct what he describes as misconceptions.

In a statement on what he calls the TOLA Act — a neat acronym for the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018 — Burgess said firstly it was incorrect to claim that information was no longer safe as those using messaging apps for lawful purposes would not come within the purview of the law.

The law took effect on 6 December after the Labor Party agreed to pass it without any amendments due to the fact that the House of Representatives had risen for the year. Labor leader Bill Shorten says he has secured a pledge that 50 pages of amendments will be passed in the new year, though the government says it has only agreed to consider them.

Burgess said it was also untrue to claim that the new laws had given spy agencies unfettered powers, claiming that there were significant checks and balances.

"Agencies can get a warrant to listen to the phone calls of criminals. Why shouldn’t these same agencies be able to get assistance to read the encrypted messages of criminals when Australian lives and livelihoods are at stake?" he asked.

Burgess also said it a myth to say that Internet security was under threat as the investigations which would be launched under the law would be "highly targeted". "Agencies cannot use the legislation to ask or require companies to create systemic weaknesses which would jeopardise the communications of other users," he added.

He denied that the law would force technology companies to move their production offshore, a claim that was made by the chairman of encryption technology firm Senetas, Francis Galbally, during a Senate panel hearing.

But Burgess did not offer any evidence to support this statement, apart from saying: "Australia is not the first country to enact this sort of legislation – and we will not be the last. Agencies in the UK already have similar powers and other nations are considering their options. The claims the legislation will drive tech companies offshore are similarly flawed."

He said it was a myth to say there was no way of ensuring that Australian communications would not be jeopardised as the the law had built-in oversight mechanisms, "including oversight from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Commonwealth Ombudsman".

Further, the notices that sought or compelled industry assistance to add functionality were also subject to review, through not from sitting judges.

Burgess said another myth being spread was that the ASD would now be able to spy on Australians, pointing out that the agency was focused on foreign intelligence.

He also said the claim that Australian technology companies would suffer in terms of reputation was wrong. To those who have compared the outcome of the ban that Australia has imposed on Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to what would happen to local tech firms was incorrect because, "It is not in any way an equivalent comparison to the highly-targeted assistance that the Australian Government will be seeking under the TOLA Act".

Burgess said many claims about the law were "hyperbolic, inaccurate and influenced by self-interest, rather than the national interest".

"The true danger is the thing the TOLA Act seeks to prevent: terrorists, paedophiles and other criminals communicating in secret, without law enforcement and security agencies being able to ‘crack their code’," he claimed.

"Australia’s law enforcement and national security agencies do not ask for legislative change lightly or routinely. But when technology evolves, the law should evolve too – so we can continue our mission to keep Australians safe."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.



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