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Australia's Cryptic Democracy

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Triggs has used the last week of her tenure as human rights commissioner to say human rights in Australia were going backwards for almost all relevant groups. "Whether it's women, Indigenous, homeless and most of course asylum seekers and refugees," she told ABC Radio National on Wednesday morning.

- Michael Slezak, "Gillian Triggs: Australian government 'ideologically opposed to human rights'

When the Australian parliament passed the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access Bill) in October 2018, it became the first country in the world to pass a law that allows government agencies to force companies to give secret access to encrypted information. Ostensibly, the bill will allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access data useful in investigating terrorism and criminal activity. But critics of the legislation point out that, like many terrorism-related laws these days, the language of the bill is broad and unclear and may lead to interpretive abuses in the future. The law passed without debate or clarification, and overwhelmingly, Labour to Liberal.

Specifically, agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), agency equivalents to the CIA and FBI, can now go to the provider of encryption products, such as WhatsApp and Signal, and require them to provide access to encrypted data of a target, and to do so secretly. One problem, a technical one, is how to gain such access to the data, since the provider would not have the key.

ASIO and the AFP want providers to hand over "technical details" of their encryption process that would allow the agents to exploit "systemic vulnerabilities". The agencies claim that they would not be requiring providers to build in a "backdoor" for remote government access, but critics, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, who have apps that would be affected, argue that exploiting vulnerabilities may do just that -- open up a system to other, more nefarious hackers, and make the encryption unsafe to use. Providers who don't cooperate with the government will face fines and possible jail time, making them unintentional agents of potential government overreach.

Such fears of overreach are not unfounded. As Lily Hay Newman of Wired wrote in "Australia's Encryption-Busting Law Could Impact Global Privacy," other Five Eyes countries, with legislatively-guaranteed civil rights regimes, have been looking to find a way around such freedom. Australia offers a model:

The new law also allows officials to approach specific individuals-such as key employees within a company-with these demands, rather than the institution itself. In practice, they can force the engineer or IT administrator in charge of vetting and pushing out a product's updates to undermine its security. In some situations, the government could even compel the individual or a small group of people to carry this out in secret.

A secret agent could go to an engineer, not the company, and force him to "do stuff" against his will, in secret, including changing data, without the company knowing. (f*ck no.) But Parliament laughed the bill through anyway.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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