Encryption bill hits cyber skills

James Riley
Editorial Director

Australia’s controversial encryption laws could impact cybersecurity education providers as the local sector takes a reputational hit, Holmes Institute executive director Stephen Nagle says.

The Holmes Institute currently offers a Bachelor of Information Systems, and is about to launch a Masters of Information Systems, focusing on cybersecurity.

The new Masters course has been in the works for more than two years – long before the controversial Assistance and Access Bill was announced and passed – and the education institute has invested heavily in it.

Stephen Nagle: Encryption laws will hurt uptake of cybersecurity courses

But Mr Nagle said prospective students may steer clear of a cybersecurity course due to the range of concerns surrounding the new encryption powers, which allow authorities and agencies to compel tech companies to provide access to encrypted data.

“The AA bill got all of our attention, especially the public relations aspect of it. There’s a PR problem with how cybersecurity education in Australia may be carried out with the threat of the government [being] over the top of everything,” Mr Nagle told InnovationAus.com.

“I don’t think the government has done enough to allay peoples’ fears that Australia will be seen as a country where the government has too much power to interfere in privacy,” he said.

“Whether [the students] are comfortable coming and seeing what they’re working on being interrupted by the government, whether that’s factual or not, is the PR problem with it.”

The AA bill was passed on the last sitting day of 2018 after Labor capitulated and agreed to support it without a range of amendments recommended by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Labor had pledged to move a series of amendments to the legislation if it won the May federal election, and will attempt to do so in Opposition now. But this push seems unlikely to succeed.

“We thought the Labor Party would insist on the amendments, and I think they should insist on them, but these things get lost in the fog,” Mr Nagle said.

“Our desire would be that we go back to talking about it, and talking about the amendments that the Labor Party had ready but caved in at the last moment.”

While there are a number of concerns around the actual powers included in the legislation, there are also fears around how the AA bill will hit the local cyber industry reputationally, an issue compounded by the rushed and farcical process surrounding its passing.

The Holmes Institute also has a cybersecurity research centre, with two full-time researchers, one focused on privacy and security in the Internet of Things sector, and the other on lightweight encryption for IoT.

This sort of research could potentially be lucrative for Australia, but is also endangered by the new encryption powers, Mr Nagle said.

“There’s a PR issue of having the Australian government with a high-level of surveillance over encryption. We’re in the area of research into light-weight encryption and that is a big business. If we are developing algorithms that can be put into devices, we don’t want the government coming in and asking for keys to that encryption,” he said.

“We see a big area of employment, not just at the certificate level, but at the Bachelor and more at the Masters level in the research area. We see cybersecurity education as a big area in the future – there are a lot of jobs in Australia.”

The Holmes Institute will launch its Masters of Information Systems program later this year.

“That has taken two years to write and get to the accrediting stage, and we’re almost through that now. We will obviously continue what we’re doing because the demand is there and we’ll continue lobbying the government,” Mr Nagle said.

“We’ll have to let it evolve over a period of time, but I think we should keep the conversation going.”

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