Australia’s latest call for creating the means to combat terrorism comes hot on the heels of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s plea for internet companies to weaken encryption and allow backdoor access. Australian officials have now seemingly joined hands with the UK, one of its Five Eyes cohorts, in this effort.
The Five Eyes nations are comprised of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, and the UK. They cooperate closely on intelligence matters and information sharing. With the convening of the Five Eyes conference in Ottawa on the horizon, Australia joins the UK in calling for “thwarting the encryption of terrorist messaging.”
Internet companies and privacy advocates alike fear that with these two influential members so firmly in the “weakening” column, others in the group will soon fall into line in the push against strong encryption. This is despite the EU going in the opposite direction. It is as if the EU and the Five Eyes nations are on a collision course, which will only spell trouble for individuals and the internet industry.
These two countries are not alone, however, as the United States’ FBI has warned repeatedly in the past that impregnable encryption raises the specter of “going dark.” That posture, along with a national, security-conscious, Republican-controlled Congress, and a President who has signaled willingness to go along with the notion, suggests that the US will cooperate (if indeed not spearhead) the effort to bring internet companies to heel on the issue of encryption.
In doing so, they are tone-deaf to the argument that a weakening of encryption for governments also invites terrorists in the “backdoors.”
In the point-positions for Australia are its Attorney General, George Brandis, and the country’s top immigration official, Peter Dutton. Brandis remarked,
“As Australia’s priority issue, I will raise the need to address ongoing challenges posed by terrorists and criminals using encryption. These discussions will focus on the need to cooperate with service providers to ensure reasonable assistance is provided to law enforcement and security agencies.”
So, increased cooperation among the Five Eyes folks looks to be in the offing. Urging immediate action on the subject of encryption, Brandis noted his reason for urgency:
“Within a short number of years, effectively, 100 per cent of communications are going to use encryption. This problem is going to degrade if not destroy our capacity to gather and act upon intelligence unless it’s addressed.”
In the US, James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, appealed to Silicon Valley in what amounts to a plea to address the encryption versus national security issue. He expressed hope that the tech industry could, with its tremendous resources, creativity, and ingenuity, “figure out a way” to allow government access to communications, while at the same time allowing privacy to prevail.
In March 2016, citing various security experts, comedian John Oliver likened this “figure it out” approach to being analogous to “walking on the sun” – in other words, impossible.
Thus the situation is presently akin to a Mexican Standoff. Each side is waiting for the other to make the next move – or at least blink. The more optimistic folks out there hope that a compromise can somehow be achieved. Some in law enforcement suggest access be allowed in limited, narrow circumstances.
However, even that is perilous, given the leaking sieve that is Washington today, where law enforcement is ensconced. Somehow, criminals and terrorists – not to mention corporate advertising interests – would find a way in, too.
The EU – collectively among the world’s biggest economies – is poised to legislate in favor of strong encryption and no backdoors. This is likely to make it more difficult for countries to adopt a cogent strategy that the tech industry would find appealing or compelling. They have consumers worldwide to placate, and an untold market share to protect.