Our Government wants to break encryption: But it’s a complete waste of time

The principals of what they want are sound, but the actions are barely possible.

I’ve written about this before, and the sentiment is the same. Today our Prime Minister, Attorney-General and Australian Federal Police Acting Commissioner stood together to call for improvements in the law enforcement capabilities of the AFP when it comes to encrypted communication.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that new laws were needed to help the law enforcement with “the challenges that some of the great specialists here at the AFP face when they seek to get over the barriers that encryption places in the way of them finding out what terrorists are plotting, what drug traffickers are up to, what people who are exploiting children online are planning.”

Tugging right at the hearts of everyday Australians, he went on to say “We need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities from the law.

The issue isn’t new.  For ever and a day, law enforcement has sought to intercept communications between one person and another if they were suspected or under investigation for criminal activity.  However, in the modern world, those communications were becoming difficult to intercept.

Mr Turnbull told a press conference today that “Increasingly communications across the internet, whether it’s messaging applications or voice applications, are encrypted end-to-end.  That means that while they can be intercepted, they can’t be read, they can’t be interpreted other than with considerable difficulty.”

To resolve this, and help law enforcement, the Government sought to “ensure that the brilliant tech companies in Silicon Valley and their emulators, bring their brilliance to bear to assist the rule of law. To enable us to be able – not through back doors or any sort of untoward means – but legitimately, appropriately, with the force of law, in the usual way that applies in the offline world, enable our law enforcement agencies to have access to these communications so that they can keep us safe.”

Attorney-General George Brandis added “It has always been accepted that in appropriate cases, under warrant, there can be lawful surveillance of private communications.”

But in the age of encryption, this government and others around the world seem to think a law can change that – Mr Brandis announced that “the Government will be bringing forward legislation, which will in particular impose an obligation upon device manufacturers and upon service providers to provide appropriate assistance to intelligence and law enforcement on a warranted basis, where it is necessary to interdict or in the case of a crime that may have been committed, it is necessary to investigate and prosecute serious crime, whether it be counter terrorism, whether it be serious organised crime, whether it be for example, the operation of paedophile networks.”

To quantify the problem, the Acting Commissioner of the AFP Michael Phelan said “We have seen a rapid growth in the amount of encrypted traffic from around 3 per cent a couple of years ago to now over 55, 60 per cent of all traffic is encrypted.”

So what do the Government want Google, Apple, Facebook and others to do?  That’s the problem, they don’t know.  They don’t even say.

What they ask for is co-operation, but does our Government expect Facebook to break the encryption of What’s App messages?

Do they expect Apple to break the encryption of iMessages?

Come on, that’s not going to happen.

Encryption creates a secure message between two people, it’s called end-to-end encryption because only the person who sends and the person it’s sent to – have the key to unlock the message.

Any change to that would mean that “key” is stored elsewhere, thus it’s not end-to-end.

The real issue – terrorists, criminals, the worst offenders, they just won’t use these systems.

Our Prime Minister was asked today “if these terrorist groups use their own end-to-end encryption systems, what can you do about that?”

His answer: “I’m not suggesting this is a problem susceptible to one quick fix.  But it is a very big issue and you have to tackle it and you have to show leadership.”

Leadership in this case is all talk.  There is no action, there can be no action.

Apps and programs are open to be developed by anyone, encryption is a mathematical code, it doesn’t require some authoritative approval to be created – so anyone can create an encrypted messaging app for themselves or anyone to use.  How exactly would a government keep on top of every single app in the app store let alone those on the Dark Web?  They can’t.

Supreme hypocrisy from a man who himself has been using encryption within apps as well as expiring messages to avoid the normal channels of communication within his own government.

I don’t have the answer here, other than to make it clear that Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple among others, regularly receive requests from law enforcement here in Australia, and hand over all the information they can to assist with those investigations.

Other than this posturing, I’ve not heard a great solution to how we counter the rise in encrypted messaging between terrorists and criminals, but one thing’s for sure – this statement, and this legislation (which we’re yet to see) will do little or nothing in the grand scheme of things.

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Tech

Trev produces two of the most popular technology podcasts in Australia, Your Tech Life and Two Blokes Talking Tech. He hosts a nightly radio show on Talking Lifestyle, 8pm Monday to Friday in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, appears on over 50 radio stations across Australia weekly, and is the Tech Expert on Channel 9’s Today Show and A Current Affair. Father of three, he is often found down in his Man Cave. Like this post? Buy Trev a drink!
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