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Wednesday, 04 December 2019 11:19

Labor says it will fix encryption law. And tomorrow, the sun will rise in the west

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Labor says it will fix encryption law. And tomorrow, the sun will rise in the west Image by Carlos Lincoln from Pixabay

A year after it bent over backwards and voted to make the government's encryption bill law, the Australian Labor Party is attempting to paint itself as some kind of virtuous entity by introducing a bill to bring about amendments to that same law.

In doing so, Labor has highlighted the fact that it has an excellent record when it comes to hypocrisy. That law has only served one purpose: it has given the intelligence agencies and law enforcement a big stick to wield if tech companies refuse to toe the line.

A statement signed by five Labor politicians — Mark Dreyfus, Senator Kristina Keneally, Michelle Rowland, Clare O'Neil and Tim Watts — about the bill, does Labor no favours, by showing that it tends to swallow anything the government says about national security.

To quote the statement, these five worthies say: "The Morrison Government have broken their promise to Australia’s tech sector and by failing to amend their encryption laws – putting a handbrake on the digital economy, and hindering the creation of jobs, productivity and growth of the economy."

No mention of how Labor broke its promise to the tech sector by passing the bill. Fearful of a backlash if it followed the advice of encryption experts, Labor, as it has done numerous times in the past, voted with the government, to put at risk the small tech industry that Australia has.

The law makes it an offence for anyone who publicises demands from authorities to change code in order to weaken encryption and threatens them with jail. The whole exercise of making changes to break encryption so that Constable Plod and his ilk can decrypt communications is expected to be kept quiet.

Was Labor unaware of this? Most certainly not, because it was there in black and white in the bill. Additionally, one politician, the Greens' digital affairs spokesperson, Senator Jordon Steele-John, expanded on the evils of the bill on more than one occasion, showing that he was someone who was aware of the dangers it posed. (Sadly, Steele-John has disappeared into the ranks of the unknown after the 2019 election. Perhaps he was too outspoken even for the Greens).

But back to Labor. Now, suddenly, the party appears to have got religion. It has awoken to the fact that, "Some customers are less likely to seek out contracts with Australian technology companies due to a widespread perception that Australia’s encryption laws may require them to introduce systemic weaknesses into their systems".

Oh, really? That fact was highlighted ad nauseum by technically qualified people last year during hearings held on the encryption bill. As someone who reported on every one of those hearings, conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, I grew quite tired of hearing the same argument being mounted so many times.

I guess one must be grateful that five top Labor functionaries have finally cottoned on to the fact that this was something significant. We must indeed be grateful for small mercies.

The only remedy for the encryption law — or to give it its rightful name, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 — is to repeal it. No amount of fudging can change the fact that it is a danger to the country's tech sector, what little we have.

The best way to track encrypted messages is by following the trail that is left by metadata - that, incidentally, cannot be encrypted. But who can be bothered with that, eh?

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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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