news Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appears to have rejected the need to reform laws on telecommunications encryption technology in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, telling the Parliament today that human factors were more important than ever in the context of a different technological landscape.
In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, commentators as senior as former CIA deputy director Mike Morrell and many others have expressed their belief that governments need to have more control over encryption technologies, to ensure they can monitor terrorist communications. Law enforcement and intelligence officials are concerned that companies such as Apple and Google do not always give officials the keys they need to read encrypted messages.
The comments have sparked a firestorm of controversy and debate, with many in the digital rights space highlighting the fact that giving governments control over encryption technologies would weaken the fabric of civil society, allowing law enforcement to monitor the communications of everyone — not just those accused of a crime.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has previously openly called for a ban to online messaging applications that allow end to end encryption — including apps such as WhatsApp, iMessage and Snapchat.
And in Australia, in the wake of the attacks, Attorney-General George Brandis stated that Australians may need to re-calibrate their expectations around privacy, in the context of the need for heightened protection from terrorism.
The comments have come despite the fact that officials have acknowledged that the terrorists who attacked civilians in Paris used open forms of communications — such as unencrypted text messages — to coordinate, prior to the attacks.
Speaking on national security in the House of Representatives this afternoon, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — himself a frequent user of encrypted apps such as Wickr — appeared to back away from encryption reform, emphasising the human factor instead of the technological angle.
“Rapid developments in communications technology present both opportunities and challenges for our agencies; modern messaging and voice applications are generally encrypted in transit,” said Turnbull. “Human intelligence, relationships with communities, are more important than ever.”
“I have therefore asked that ASIO and other relevant agencies work with our international intelligence partners to address the challenge of monitoring terrorist groups in this new environment.”
Not all agree with this interpretation of Turnbull’s comments. Some, such as Crikey journalist Josh Taylor, have interpreted Turnbull’s comments as signalling that Turnbull will follow international rhetoric on encryption and seek to crack down on the use of such technologies.
Turnbull hinting at the possibility of cracking down on encryption, if ASIO wants it (and of course ASIO wants it).
— Josh Taylor (@joshgnosis) November 24, 2015
So what is Turnbull saying here? My personal opinion (and, of course, I could be wrong) is that he is saying two things.
Firstly, he is acknowledging the debate over encryption exists. It’s hardly something new — I expect that ASIO and the Attorney-General’s Department have been following their colleagues in the UK and the US and recommending at least some controls on encryption be considered by Turnbull, in the wake of the Paris attacks.
This is standard practice for these kinds of agencies. They always seek a wider remit and to crack down on certain areas, following an attack. Their motives are pure — protecting Australians — even if they usually overreach in terms of the powers they seek.
However, Turnbull is also pragmatically pointing out that it is not possible to kill off encryption. This makes sheer common sense. ISIS, for example, is reported to actually have its own form of encryption for some forms of communications. You can’t just ban encryption or set up government backdoors and think that these types of organisations will respect such a ban or even use commercial encryption technologies.
So Turnbull is respecting the needs of the intelligence agencies — and instructing them to continue to work with the international community to heighten their intelligence powers — but without causing a firestorm in Australia by trying to crack down on encryption itself.
It’s a pragmatic approach, and the right one. There is no way that the Australian Prime Minister should be trying to regulate how companies such as Apple do encryption. Such an attempt would be fruitless indeed.