Last week, Reuters and other sources reported that the Australian government has proposed laws that would compel companies to provide access to encrypted information. Obviously, asking for such data is conditional upon taking all the proper legal steps.
A Growing Demand
Governments the world over have been clamoring for access to encrypted data for years now, for decades if you want to be technical about it: ever since the “encryption wars” of the 1990s. But, demands have particularly intensified in recent years, usually under the banner of “we can’t tell what terrorists are doing,” an argument maintained by upstanding democracies as well as disreputable nation states.
Some propose the inclusion of backdoors to encryption, which is universally rejected by security professionals: in an era when even unwitting mistakes can be leveraged to break into encryption, a purposefully built-in cryptographic defect will undoubtedly create bigger problems – especially if it’s known, without a doubt, that there is one to be exploited.
(On a societal level, backdoors present a different problem to governments supposedly accountable to the people they represent: your government officials proposing to force companies to secretly build a way to spy on people. Even if the government were to follow all protocol when doing the spying, it would be hard to shake off comparisons to Nazis, fascists, Cold War-era Eastern Europe, North Korea, etc. because legal protocols were followed in these cases, too).
Not a Back Door, But Security Suffers Nonetheless
Australia’s proposed legislation is heavily based on the United Kingdom’s “Snooper’s Charter.” However, it differs in its decryption requirement, with the UK’s version not having such a clause.
Thankfully, back doors are not required to meet the rule of law. For example, a copy of each message ever sent via an encrypted app could be kept stored somewhere. The encryption engine used in the apps could remain intact, ensuring that messages that are intercepted cannot be cracked. This means, however, that the app provider would have to act as a middle man, and that the message would be encrypted twice: once when being sent to the app provider and again when the latter sends the message to the recipient.
If the provider is subpoenaed, it’s a matter of producing the decrypted message to the authorities. (One assumes that these messages will be stored in an encrypted state until necessary).
This, however, introduces a second problem: knowing that perfect security is impossible, the provider is charged with the unachievable duty of protecting every single one of those messages from hackers, be they internal, external, or government-sanctioned (foreign or otherwise).
Furthermore, it does nothing to address the original problem that started this entire “encrypt everything” mindset: finding out that governments, Australia included, have been collecting, processing, mining, and generally spying on people. What’s even more suspicious is that, when challenged or about to be challenged about these practices, the programs were shut down.
Sounds like something out of the Bourne Trilogy.
Looking at the long-term consequences, it looks like the law will be for naught. The argument for favoring the law is that governments are having a hard time finding, tracking, and neutralizing terrorist activities; and that it’s not the government’s intention to pry into private lives on a massive, automated scale.
But, aren’t terrorists using these encrypted apps because they’re encrypted? It’s not as if they chose a communication app for its choice of emoticons and stickers and, as a happy coincidence, it also features end-to-end encryption.
Consequently, if governments the world over decide to enact similar laws to Australia’s proposed, wouldn’t it force terrorists to use something else? Perhaps create an encryption app of their own that can be side-loaded on a smartphone? It wouldn’t necessarily be easy, but with enough resources, it’s not impossible. For example, Mexican drug cartels have been known to build their own cellular network; creating a private communications app would be less daunting and cheaper… and its operation would be harder to detect.
So, the end result would still be the same – governments having a hard time finding, tracking, and neutralizing terrorist activities – but with increased costs to providers and increased security risks for law-abiding people all around.
This, however, does not seem to faze the Australian government. Assuming, of course, that they’ve even considered it at depth. Australian Prime Minister Turnbull had this to say regarding math and cryptography:
“Well the laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia,” he said.
This was later clarified:
“I’m not a cryptographer, but what we are seeking to do is to secure [technology companies’] assistance. They have to face up to their responsibility. They can’t just wash their hands of it and say it’s got nothing to do with them.”
Of course, tech companies are not saying that, that “it’s got nothing to do with them.” If anything, tech companies are essentially stating the obvious. In terms of an analogy, they’re saying that they cannot create a gun that only shoots the bad guys, and when trained on the good guys, the gun won’t work. Encryption is the same, and the moment you start making compromises on how it works, it’s bound to create other problems. Regarding guns, it would be limited and minimal, but when it comes to encryption, the effects could be global.
Two Moves Ahead?
However, perhaps the end game to the legislation is forcing criminals off well-protected, well-financed apps and devices.
Some of the brightest minds in the world are working on or contributing towards the security efforts of companies whose lifeblood is the internet. Criminals’ technical knowhow and financial resources are microscopic in comparison to what these companies can marshal for data security. Piggybacking on their efforts, and for gratis to boot, is a win-win for bad guys.
Understandably, governments should be incensed. It would be preferable that those in the shadows use their (comparatively paltry) resources on creating “top-notch” security – thus shifting funds away from, say, weapons – than getting it for free.
And, while creating a communications app might be relatively easy, creating a secure means of communication with perfect privacy is not. If the best minds in the world are not involved, there’s a very good chance that easily exploitable flaws will be found… and that’s familiar ground for intelligence organizations.
So, even if criminals and terrorists do veer off towards uncompromised encrypted communications because of the law, the end result could very well not be the same.
The only problem? You can’t legislate math and science; in the long run, they win. The problems pointed out by mathematicians, scientists, cryptologists, data security professionals, and others will rear their ugly heads sooner or later.
The question is whether it will have been worth it.
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