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Thursday, 20 July 2017 11:44

Encryption laws: what does Malcolm Turnbull want?

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Apple has gone on the front foot as far as the passage of encryption laws in Australia goes, having already sent some of its people over in the last month to talk to government officials about the legislation.

The reason for the visits, according to a report in Fairfax Media publications, is to argue that Apple does not want the new laws to prevent the use of encryption on digital devices. Another reason advanced is to avoid being asked to provide decryption keys in specific cases.

Collaboration with the tech industry is one thing. Asking for the impossible is an entirely different thing – and that is what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has done.

One is left with the impression that both the encryption laws and also Turnbull's move to consolidate security agencies and the immigration department under a single minister are aimed at one thing: shoring up his position as PM and lessening the chance that he will face a challenge from the right wing of his own party.

In other words, these encryption laws are driven by politics. They are just another indication that we have people in power who pretend that one can legislate for everything.

Bloviating about the dangers posed by terrorism has always been a vote winner and a means of getting the public on-side. The simplest, crudest appeal to fear works the best with people who have a simple mindset – or with those who cannot be bothered to find out if a politician is speaking the truth or simply spinning lines out of his/her head.

The limitations of what a company can do with regard to encryption were clearly outlined in the Apple-FBI stoush last year. Briefly put, the FBI took Apple to court, asking that it produce a version of its mobile operating system that could be loaded on an iPhone 5C that belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two terrorists involved in killings in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015. This was required because the FBI could not gain access to the content on the iPhone in question.

It is important to note here that the FBI decided to go to court without first approaching Apple privately and trying to find out if there could be a little adjustment between "friends". Of course, when Apple chief executive Tim Cook was confronted by the FBI's court action in public, he went into gangster mode and upped the stakes.

What I want to focus on here is not the back and forth, but rather an extremely interesting document filed in court during the stoush by Apple's user privacy manager Erik Neuenschwander.

Many documents that were produced before the court were plain boring – sometimes there was too much legalese, at others there was too much bizspeak.

But Neuenschwander's statement was different in that it could be understood in its entirety. He laid out the difficulty that Apple would face if it did choose to try and comply with the FBI's demands – and pointed out that even if the company jumped through all the hoops he described there was no guarantee that the end result would be what the FBI wanted.

The list of things involved in creating a mobile operating system like iOS is stunning. So too the number of people who have to code and create documentation. There is a list of processes so long that it makes government bureaucracy look like a kindergarten booklist.

But none of these procedures and processes are there for no reason. It is because of such procedures that Apple can sell its products and claim they are the best when it comes to security.

It would be good if Turnbull were to spend some time reading Neuenschwander's statement. It would also be good if he took some time to understand the central role that security plays in the tech industry these days.

Any tech company that cannot offer good security is dead in the water. Or it will be in the next few years. That much should be evident even to the most naive human on the planet.

The big five — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — are unlikely to take a backward step on security, no matter who asks.

If one wants to know the contents of an encrypted message, then one will have to first gain possession of either the device that sent it or the one on which it was received. But if the user of either device has set up a passcode, then the task of breaking that code presents itself.

Guessing the passcode on iPhones is made more difficult by the fact that after a certain number or tries, the device becomes unusable. And even if the guessing works, there is the possibility that the message may have been deleted by the user.

So the only way out is for the company concerned to know the encryption key being used by a particular device. But then that is what is called a backdoor – something Turnbull says the government is not about to mandate.

Then what does the government propose? Putting a man/woman behind bars and using "enhanced interrogation techniques" to get him/her to reveal what the government is after? Or legislating that a certain category of person cannot use a certain kind of device? Starting a prolonged court battle with tech companies that are not based in Australia?

Turnbull has earned derision around the world for making a statement to the effect that the laws of mathematics are not relevant in Australia. One hopes that he was not advised to pursue encryption laws by someone who is ignorant of these laws.

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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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