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Wednesday, 05 July 2017 10:02

Encryption: Turnbull continues his Man of La Mancha ways

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An exclusive report this morning says that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull plans to ask US President Donald Trump to demand that US technology companies break into encrypted messages sent by suspected terrorists.

It is an indication that the publishing company, Fairfax Media, and the writer, Peter Hartcher, are prepared to print any kind of bunkum as long as it comes from a sufficiently "official" source.

Whether the statement makes sense or not is never the issue, it would appear. The reader is also given no indication that Turnbull is speaking nonsense.

Without any proof, Turnbull also told Hartcher: "The point is, what are the responsibilities that a WhatsApp or a Telegram or a Signal, what are the responsibilities they owe to public safety You have got a very real global threat where terrorist organisations, Islamist terrorist organisations, are using these digital platforms to do us harm."

Many reports in recent times have given people to believe that encryption can be turned on and off like a tap. Fairfax Media has led the way on such reports in recent times, a sad indicator that one of Australia's great publishing houses has sunk to a level where any nonsense is rushed into print as long as it sensational enough.

don quixote

To put it rather bluntly, short of rolling back encryption altogether, there is no way of ensuring that all people who are not behind bars do not have access to encryption.

Tom SulstonTom Sulston (right), a software delivery consultant who works for ThoughtWorks, agrees. "Given that the best encryption libraries are open source, that genie is out of the bottle," he said during an informal exchange with iTWire.

"While governments might choose to compel companies to put backdoors in their individual implementations, the library code remains secure," said Sulston, who recently addressed the Canberra press gallery on the tools journalists could use to help protect their sources from unwanted intrusion.

"So attempts to roll back encryption not only wouldn’t work, they’d punish ordinary citizens while criminals used other, un-backdoored tools, or simply move their communications to other jurisdictions."

Somehow, the Australian government, which can afford to pay any number of consultants steep fees, cannot find a man with the simple common sense that someone like Sulston has. Or is that because the kind of logic that Sulston dishes out would mean that Turnbull would be unable to bloviate as he has in the exclusive interview mentioned at the start of this piece?

Sulston was asked what was the best option for governments in the existing scenario. Pat came the answer: "Governments need to realise the limitations of technology – encryption tools are either broken or not. They can’t be compromised just for intelligence agencies and no-one else. There is a huge gap where our society has gone digital and our government has failed to understand what this means."

Unlike our good Prime Minister, Sulston also knows his limitations as a technologist. "I’m not a legal or security expert, so I don’t have strong (or relevant!) opinions on how governments should tackle terrorism," he confessed.

"But I do believe that their efforts to do so need to remain within the boundaries set by existing laws, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Turnbull would do well to contemplate the fact that the whole debate about encryption was brought to the fore by the US National Security Agency. Its blanket surveillance of Americans was exposed in 2013 by one Edward Snowden and this led US companies to do everything possible to convince their customers that their data was safe.

Microsoft went so far as to set up a data centre in Germany where it would not be subject to the remit of US laws.

Encryption is built into products like WhatsApp for a reason – the owners, in this case Facebook, want to attract more and more people with the selling point being that whatever they say is secure.

Try asking companies which are making billions hand over fist by offering such apps free, to cut back on encryption.

Empty promises can be made some of the time, but even Turnbull, who probably holds the record for the use of the words "innovative" and "agile" in recent times, should realise that you cannot blow hot air on encryption all the time and expect people not to become cynical as to the motives behind such talk.

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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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