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Encryption and liberties on the 'ungovernable' internet

Binoy Kampmark |  13 July 2017


It's been a pressing theme for Australian authorities since September 11: certain spaces of communication are to be questioned and controlled. Despite amassing a set of rules and regulations that make Australia a leader (in a dubious sense) in accessing communications, the Turnbull government wishes for more.

WhatsApp and Facebook iconsThe attitude of Prime Minister Turnbull echoes the fear all autocracies have: that control is slipping away, and that citizens cannot be trusted to behave in a modern communications environment without government intrusions that compel technology companies to surrender encrypted communications, if necessary.

'We cannot allow the internet to be used as a place for terrorists and child molesters and people who peddle child pornography, and drug traffickers to hide in the dark.' Accordingly, 'The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia.'

It is worth noting Australia's incremental and increasingly police-styled efforts to tighten the way information is exchanged within the modern security environment. The rationale behind these rules is that citizens must be watched. That such measures are more pernicious than useful is rarely discussed.

Australia's security state is heavily stacked with options. There is legislation that potentially targets journalists for revealing material on Secret Intelligence Operations. There is legislation criminalising the disclosure of information on detention centres by entrusted persons, with few exemptions.

There are data retention laws, based on a dubious understanding of technology, obligating telecommunications companies to retain certain data for at least two years. This has been deemed by the European Union as unwarranted intrusions into the privacy of citizens.

None of this is enough. The Turnbull government wishes to enter what many defenders of net neutrality and freedom would consider untenable: a world of decryption, co-opting the very technology giants that are against it. Effectively, companies such as Facebook and Twitter are being given the tap to suggest ways of overriding their encryption protections. It is a point the prime minister has been threatening for weeks, taking each terrorist outrage as a justification for another legislative drive.

Attorney-General George Brandis has also made the point that he is no fan of encryption technologies, describing them as the 'greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability' in a lifetime. Indeed, the Turnbull government has been taking the wheels on the subject, with Brandis claiming in June that Australia would be leading discussions on how best to foil encryption efforts behind potential terrorist attacks at the Five Eyes discussions in Ottawa.


"Such police measures, once introduced, create a culture of surveillance that does not merely gnaw away at the sinews of freedom, but also censors and limits the communications of citizens."


A vital principle behind why individuals use such services lies in the confidence it gives them. It goes without saying that some who do so will have nefarious purposes. But most will not, engaging in online activity (banking, orders, purchases, bookings) they hope is safe from hacking, theft and fraud.

The reasoning behind expanding already extensive intercept and gathering powers by ASIO and Australia's law enforcement bodies ignores the necessary effectiveness such actions will have. As Australian Greens Co-Deputy Leader Scott Ludlam explained last month, 'Spying on more people can't help, particularly when the perpetrators are already known to authorities — as they were in Melbourne, in London, in Sydney.' The haystack is expanded, while the number of needles remains.

Such arguments never change: that the teeth of law enforcement need sharpening to keep abreast of technology. The only way to do it, supposedly, is by passing more intrusive legislation. With little surprise, and with much envy, the Turnbull government has been eyeing Britain's Investigatory Powers Act, which passed in November last year. That it was promulgated under a May government is not surprising. British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has never shed the worn skin of secretary of the Home Office, a time which saw her recommend some of the most intrusive surveillance measures in British history.

The IPA, which authorises hacking and access to data of individuals irrespective of whether they are suspected of wrongdoing, remains the crown jewel of that effort. In Edward Snowden's words, it constitutes 'the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.'

The final point to emphasise is effect. Arguments are repeatedly made that such enlarged powers are never abused — a charmingly naïve assumption — and that law enforcement authorities merely need the 'capacity' to have them. These can either abate, or be extended, after a review.

The reality tends to be different. Such police measures, once introduced, create a culture of surveillance that does not merely gnaw away at the sinews of freedom, but also censors and limits the communications of citizens. But the introduction of weakness into the encryption edifice will maximise, not minimise, the prospect for crime to take place in Turnbull's 'ungovernable space'. Those specialising in malware and hacking tools will rejoice.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.



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Submitted comments

I am a by nature sympathetic to Dr Kampmarks fears re giving governments too much power. Two issues trouble me though. 1. Aren't we already being spied on by people we didn't elect - corporates who know all our spending habits, our circles of association and so on. 2. Children are currently being exposed online to pornographic materials which, if examined by a classification board, would be deemed 'Refused Classification' ie if you tried to bring DVDs of this material into Australia via customs, entry would be refused. There has to be a more nuanced approach which doesn't equate all reasonable protections of the vulnerable as 'nanny state' tactics.

Lara 17 July 2017

Long before the internet became part (and for many, a great part) of our day, T S Eliot said "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." There is, of course, a dark side to the internet and responsibility lies with the user. Governments will take an interest if they perceive anything is 'ungovernable'. It's a great pity as excessive surveillance tends to depersonalise.

Pam 17 July 2017

for we are young and free????

Janet 17 July 2017

It is easy to be critical Binoy. The very first responsibility of government is to protect the community, in this case from exploitation of the internet by crooks, terrorists and pornographers. How would you suggest they do it, for undoubtedly they should.

Eugene 18 July 2017

I have to agree with you Binoy. Turnbull's actions are being forced on him by Abbott and the Far Right of his Party and of course Hanson's extremist views. This smells strongly of George Orwell's "1984" and also "Animal Farm'. Sadly the average Aussie, who is more concerned about unaffordable house prices and the rising cost of energy, seems blissfully ignorant of the move to have more surveillance of Mr/Mrs/Ms J. Citizen. I also noted Lara's remarks about big business knowing our purchasing habits and hobbies etc. etc. A worrying trend. Eugene that is why we have a Police Service-that is their job not the Governments!

Gavin 18 July 2017

The attack on thePM Turnbull is hypocracy. One main issue when he went to the last election was to settle the "Equal Marriage"argument by Plebicite. Labour wants Parliament to settle it. Surely a Parliament primarily of MEN is an archaic and non-democratic way to resolve a burning social issur. The idea that Australia should allow Parliament to resolve this issue because "other countrries solved it that way is equally bizarre. Australia and New Zealand led the ppush for female representation in Parliament. Why concern ourselves with how others vote. Let the people most affected by the issue decide the outcome. That is true democracy.

Karl H cameron-Jackson 06 September 2017

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