In a bid to allow security agencies to bypass encryption in private messaging apps, Australia’s House of Representatives on Thursday (Dec 6) passed the controversial Assistance and Access Bill, better known as the Anti-Encryption Bill.
Once the bill gets the necessary royal approval and becomes enforceable law, which is expected to happen sometime before Christmas, it will empower the country’s law enforcement agencies to issue “technical notices” to companies like WhatsApp and Signal, among others, to allow them access to people’s private messages and chat histories.
Encryption is basically a mathematical manipulation to scramble communication in a way that nobody can decipher what it is except the people involved in the exchange – that is the sender and the receiver.
Obviously, the purpose of this method is to protect sensitive information from being accessed by unauthorized people.
Tech companies like Apple and Google, to name a couple, have been increasingly building encryption into their products to protect the digital privacy of billions of users across the globe.
So, when you’re messaging a friend or exchanging sensitive information about your business, or whatever else, with another person, you can rest assured in the fact that the communication is strictly between the intended parties and completely undecipherable to others.
The problem is that there is no stopping these encrypted exchanges from taking place between people with malicious intent, like terrorists, for example, which makes it next to impossible for law enforcement personnel to decipher the communication and prevent crime from being perpetrated.
However, privacy advocates across the world continue to fight in favor of digital privacy, arguing that communication between individuals should be protected from potential snoopers, including the government.
For now, it’s a hot topic of debate with no immediate resolution in sight.
Coming back to the bill in question, lawmakers argue that its purpose is to target serious crimes like terrorism, homicide, sex offenses and drug smuggling and that requests made to tech companies for backdoor access will carry two mandatory signatures from senior government officials to avoid misuse of the law.
Despite the assurances, there is a general sense of skepticism and mistrust among people and institutions, including the Law Council of Australia, about the proposed legislation – as was evident from the reaction it evoked on social media.
In fact, the Law Council issued what it calls a “warning,” asking the Australian Parliament to avoid rushing the bill as it carried the “very real risk of unintended consequences” if not properly scrutinized before making it a law.
While the council is not against giving law enforcement agencies the additional tool to fight crime, it is of the opinion that a thorough scrutiny of the proposed legislation is absolutely imperative to address the genuine concerns of the people.
“The Law Council supports aspects of this bill to give intelligence agencies additional powers to help keep us safe,” said Arthur Moses – the President-elect of the Law Council.
However, the “unprecedented” bill was way too multifaceted to be pushed through Parliament in a matter of just four days, without giving it the due scrutiny it deserved, he cautioned.
“Parliament must proceed carefully to ensure we get it right. Rushed law can make bad law,” he said.
He goes on to say that failure to assess all aspects of the bill can result in undesired consequences that can likely infringe on the “privacy and rights of law-abiding Australian citizens, the media and corporate sector.”
Moses is also worried about a possible political backlash against those who are voicing their concerns about the proposed anti-encryption law.
“When dealing with sensitive and complicated legislation like this, it is completely inappropriate for any politician to accuse anyone of putting at risk national security because they are raising legitimate concerns about legislation,” he said.
He said that Australian democracy had no place for such allegations to be thrown around like “confetti,” suggesting that “the energy would be better spent on getting the legislation right.”
He appealed to the parliament to act with “caution, moderation and restraint,” not only as far as the bill is concerned but in “all legislation that impacts on the privacy and rights of Australians.”
“I’ve spent >20 years building cryptography and security software. Now the Australian govt is considering laws that could coerce me to add backdoors.
This is akin to requiring a doctor to infect a patient or an engineer to weaken a bridge,” tweeted one Damien Miller, who couldn’t have said it better.
Western Australia Senator Jordan Steele-John called it a “sad day for democracy and our online privacy, safety & security.”
Whatever the comments, there seems to be a general consensus among the Twitterati that the Assistance and Access Bill is not such a brilliant idea after all – the discontentment was palpable.
Here are some more interesting reactions.
What about Australian tech start ups under #aaBill? Their products will be fucking worthless under #aaBill, completely unable to be exported or used in the E.U. Backdoored software isn't compatible with the GDPR
— Asher Wolf (@Asher_Wolf) December 5, 2018
The EXACT reason Huawei were banned from NBN & 5G is the fear of Chinese Government back doors. Now Liberal, Nats & ALP almost legislated requiring the same thing in Australia. This is how you kill our software industry and EVERYTHING is software now. #aabill
— John Lindsay (@bigjsl) December 4, 2018
— Stone Ocean When (@TheSaltminer) December 6, 2018