Politics

Superfluous to law enforcement: Peter Dutton’s move on encryption

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Peter Dutton and Angus Taylor, eager to please Big Brother (Image edited by Dan Jensen)

In a bid to prevent terrorist acts, Peter Dutton is hastily backing a new bill which would make encrypted communications accessible to law enforcement agencies, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

PETER DUTTON, Australia’s Palaeolithic figure of politics, has been fairly quiet of late. A failed leadership bid for his party and a tilt at the prime ministership, the threat of a referral to the Australian High Court over his eligibility to sit in parliament and the prospect of losing his seat at the next federal election will do that sort of thing to you.

The Home Affairs minister, however, has been revived and is riding again. And nothing gets Dutton so exercised as arrests on terrorism charges, three of which took place on Tuesday involving Australian nationals of Turkish background from Melbourne’s northern suburbs. We live in, so we keep being reminded of, disconcertingly interesting times, marked by danger and shot through with worry. “We are,” suggests the grave minister, “in a position of vulnerability.”  But do not worry — Dutton and the national security state, Freudian father and all, is there to protect you and clasp you, citizenry and all, to an ample chest. Changes, however, are needed.

Central to this bear-hugging protection is the Telecommunications and Other Legislation (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 (Cth), a bit of surveillance nastiness that has the digital and telecommunication giants worried, not to mention consumer rights advocates, the university sector and an assortment of bodies charged with overseeing internet protocols.

The proposed bill pivots on two types of notices that would enable security agencies to compel direct communications providers to bend over backwards for access to personal encrypted communications. This can involve the compelled installation, maintenance, testing or use of software by device manufacturers or telcos supplied by the agencies in question. In blatant, crude terms, the legislation compels a degradation of the encryption process and the installation of spyware at the discretion of the national security state. 

Using the charging of three men for terrorism charges as a pretext, a fascinating exercise given that these were executed without the need of intrusive, decrypting legislation in place, Dutton felt that:

“The technology now has got ahead of where the law is. We are finding ourselves in a particular black spot where the police are blind to the telecommunications across these messaging apps and it is unacceptable.”

As the Australian Human Rights Commission has warned in its submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the bill:

“...would also authorise intrusive and covert powers that could significantly limit an individual’s human rights to privacy and freedom of expression, among other rights. This includes the ability of interception agencies to access digital communications and data that would otherwise remain private; for example, encrypted messages on a phone.”

While the Parliamentary Joint Committee charged with examining the proposed bill is unlikely to do much for the ledger of liberties, Dutton is impatient to curb hearings and conclude matters as a formality. (Always paternal and all-knowing, Dutton is never one for public submissions.) 

“I would like to see the committee deal with it as quickly as possible.” 

To Sky News, a favoured abode to air his opinions, Dutton claimed:

“I have spoken to (chair) Andrew Hastie about ways in which the committee can deal with this in an expeditious way so that the parliament can deal with it as soon as possible.”

Three more public hearings, including one scheduled just two days before parliament rises, will take place unless Dutton gets his way.

To his modest credit, Hastie has noted that the committee was still busy fulfilling the terms of its inquiry. 

“We’ve taken quite a bit of evidence and we’ll bring that to a conclusion soon.”

Dutton has the rhetorical companionship of cabinet minister Angus Taylor, a character who fails to understand that a lessening of encryption protections is a concession not merely to a clipping of liberties wholesale, but a nice advertisement to prospective criminals. To weaken encryption in one, supposedly tailored instance is to do so in all of them. But this is of little concern to a person afflicted with the jaundiced eye of seeing criminals, terrorists and paedophiles everywhere. “We’ve got to ensure criminals, terrorists, and paedophiles have nowhere to hide,” claims an emphatic Taylor. “At the moment, they’re hiding behind the encryption.” 

This elimination of a space of private communication and engagement is hardly going to be confined to such a sordid, elect trio of malefactors; it is bound to cover the necessarily benign and, in some cases, important communication of individuals at risk from the more savage features of the state. Credible, high grade encryption does not merely guarantee secure transactions but a secure existence for contrarians and dissidents. 

It also provides companies a reassurance that their services will be shielded and secure when delivered to consumers. For a government dreamily mad about the wealth-making magic of companies, the bill championed by Dutton and Taylor would effectively place Australian companies in a position that is anti-competitive. Deal with such entities, in other words, at your peril.

Power, notably the sort wielded by governments and organs of state, always needs formidable constraints and one way of doing so is to keep the state away from the everyday engagements, encounters and transactions between the citizenry. Conventional policing and detection remain true and tried methods and that conventional oxymoron – security intelligence – might have to be revisited. Given the detailed description offered by Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton on the alleged motivations of the arrestees in the absence of Dutton’s proposed expansion, the bill is bound to be superfluous to law enforcement and dangerous to everybody else. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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