Australia wants to force social media and chat platforms like WhatsApp and Google to decrypt users’ private messages on request. However given the nature of encryption and international business there’s no guarantee the law could even be enforced.
The government is still pursuing laws it proposed earlier this year, extending the powers it already introduced to force ISPs to retain user data for two years.
As usual when seeking such powers, the government cited terrorism, pedophilia and organized crime as its reasons. Encrypted communications now affect 90 percent of Australian domestic intelligence agency ASIO’s cases, said prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to an ABC report, attorney-general George Brandis even called encryption “greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability” in a lifetime.
Brandis said his government would prefer multinational companies cooperated voluntarily with law enforcement requests. If not, the proposed laws would compel them to.
Australia’s plans will invite comparisons to the U.K.’s Investigatory Powers Act, a 2016 law called the “Snoopers’ Charter” by opponents. Indeed, Brandis cited that law as an inspiration for his country’s own. Neighboring New Zealand also has a similar law.
Do Governments Even Have the Power to Decrypt By Force?
However, so far law enforcement agencies in several countries have had difficulty enforcing decryption laws. Companies have resisted in some cases — like Apple’s famous refusal to unlock iPhones in the San Bernadino terrorism case and others. The FBI was forced to use a third-party hack to recover the data it wanted.
Facebook, among many other experts, has claimed that allowing backdoors to encrypted communication services weakens them for all users.
The company hosts its own private messaging platform and also owns WhatsApp, which claims to feature end-to-end encryption. If true, then it has no decryption keys it could give law enforcement, even if it wanted to.
Which Law Applies in Australia?
Prime minister Turnbull responded to these concerns with a quote that sounded laughably naive:
“The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia.”
Most would agree the laws of mathematics trump any country’s law, no matter what its leader says. Australia could ban certain apps, though a developed country blocking Google and Facebook would be bad optics.
Even then, there are plenty of other options to encrypt. Even the U.S., with all its legal resources, could not stop PGP from proliferating around the world in the 1990s “Crypto Wars”. There isn’t even a company to contact if you want a backdoor to PGP.
Cryptographer Hal Finney helped develop PGP, and later brought his experiences to Bitcoin. He understood both governments’ compulsion to snoop, and the power of encryption to hide from it. The latter appears to be more powerful.
Do governments have a legitimate reasons to decrypt private communications? Let’s hear your thoughts.
Images via Pixabay, Wikimedia Commons