Crypto-politics: A sleeper awakes

James Riley
Editorial Director

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s assertion that technology companies should help security services circumvent encryption measures has drawn a sharp response from Greens senator Scott Ludlam.

Senator Ludlam has long been a fierce critic of government’s electronic surveillance laws. In a speech in the Senate this week he summarised the many problems that will occur if technology companies like Apple and Google make it easier to de-encrypt messages transmitted over the Internet and by phone.

He calls it a ‘sleeper issue’. He’s trying to wake it up. He likens the development of encryption technology to an arms race.

Scott Ludlam: Forcing companies to hand over the encryption keys is a dumb idea

“The technology of cryptography allows us to use devices with confidence that nobody else is listening in. The technology and the arguments over whether a state or other actors should be able to listen on your private communications goes back decades.

“In the period after the Second World War, when cryptography was entirely the domain of the military-industrial complex, crypto-tools were classified as munitions and their export was severely restricted.

“During the 1990s, particularly in the US, there was tension between cryptographic tools as munitions—as mathematics with military applications, if you like—and commercial and social applications. That tug of war between military applications and commercial and social applications came to a head, and the social and commercial applications won.”

The concern now, of course, is that terrorists and criminals are using encrypted communications to avoid detection.

Mr Turnbull and his technologically challenged Attorney General George Brandis are arguing for the creation of ‘back doors’ to encryption systems that will enable governments and security agencies, with the help of the companies that develop the encryption techniques, to break into encrypted messages and monitor them.

Senator Brandis knows so little about this technology, but he actually said last week that the ability to do this is not using a back door, when that is exactly what it is. Senator Ludlam tells it like it is:

“In recent days, Prime Minister Turnbull and Senator Brandis have been attempting – with, I would argue, a measure of desperation – to uninvent a proposal that was little more, really, than a slogan or a rather foolish plea to ‘uninvent’ encryption.

“They are saying now that they are not asking for a back door into encrypted services; they just want to compel Internet Service Providers and communications services to give them broad access to encrypted data, keys and devices.

“So we are not after a new back door; we just want to be able to walk in through the front door—or something. It is not actually clear what exactly it is that they want.

“Encryption technology protects citizens, companies, governments, diplomats, police officers, politicians, journalists, journalists’ sources and ordinary people who just do not like the idea of the Government being able to go through their stuff, and it protects us in multiple ways.

“It keeps banking and personal details safe, it allows governments to securely engage in transactions with suppliers and customers and it ensures that the business of government can be undertaken with lower risk of malicious attacks.

“So, if you deliberately force providers to introduce weaknesses into these tools, you are taking on an enormous risk that threatens everybody. It threatens the integrity of the banking system, which has enough problems.”

Senator Ludlam is doing nothing more than stating what is glaringly obvious to anybody who understands anything about the theory and practice of encryption. The government’s call is based on a misunderstanding of how the technology works and would, if implemented, destroy a whole industry and place us all at greater risk, not less.

Yet they persist with the absurdity. It is the latest in a long line of security measures, implemented in the name of freedom, which are reducing our freedoms. Like many such ideas, it plays directly into the terrorists’ hands, by breaking down the very security which we hold dear.

Senator Ludlam is hardly alone with his criticisms. Proposals for a back door into encrypted messages have been widely condemned globally. The only people advocating the idea have been politicians continue to wish to be seen to be doing something about terrorism.

Terrorism is evil and abhorrent, but in the greater scheme of things it is not a major danger to the continued existence of western civilisation. It is certainly not the existential threat that fear mongers, like our political leaders, make it out to be.

By far the bigger threat is the misinformed, hysterical and self-serving bleating of politicians on the make. By constantly highlighting and exaggerating the terrorist threat they are doing exactly what the terrorists want, which is to make us more afraid, just so that they can pretend to make us safer. It is the height of absurdity, but we live in an absurd world.

We can take some solace in the fact that the measures being proposed by Mr Turnbull and Mr Brandis, and by Theresa May in the UK and many others around the world, could only ever be implemented through a global initiative. This would have to begin in the US, where virtually all the technology companies whose cooperation would be needed are located.

US policy directions under the current administration are, to put it mildly, uncertain. But Senator Ludlam is dead right when he says it is an arms race.

Even if the sorts of measures that are being suggested were ever to be enacted, you can be certain that new forms of encryption and communication systems will be invented to circumvent them.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment

Related stories