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The growing Australian surveillance state

Over the past few years the federal government has passed more and more laws granting police and security agencies greater access to our private communications. Now there are growing concerns that these laws actually weaken our online security.

Over the past few years the federal government has passed more and more laws granting police and security agencies greater access to our private communications.  

Law enforcement agencies claim the powers protect Australians from criminals, but there are growing concerns that they actually weaken our online security.

Today, writer for The Saturday Paper and chair of Digital Rights Watch Lizzie O’Shea on Australia’s ever expanding surveillance powers, and if they could actually make us more vulnerable.
 

Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper and chair of Digital Rights Watch Lizzie O’Shea.

Show Transcript

[Theme music starts]

 

BETH:

From Schwartz Media,  I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am.

 

Over the past few years, the Federal government has passed more and more laws granting police and security agencies greater access to our private communications.  Law enforcement agencies claim the powers protect Australians from criminals, but there are growing concerns that they actually weaken our online security.

Today, writer for The Saturday Paper and chair of Digital Rights Watch, Lizzie O’Shea, on Australia’s ever expanding surveillance powers - and if they could actually make us more vulnerable.

 

[Theme music ends]

 

BETH:

Lizzie, let’s start with the basics: What is encryption, and when did it start becoming a part of our day-to-day lives?

 

LIZZIE:

So for a long time, really, as the Internet was developing, as our systems of network communication were growing, encryption wasn’t a common thing. It was really only used in certain small parts of the Internet. But of course, what happened in 2013 was that Edward Snowden revealed to the world just how much of our communication was being watched by surveillance agencies and in particular the National Security Agency.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter

Today, he came out as the leaker of classified NSA documents that spell out a secret surveillance programme, the…”

 

Archival Tape -- Edward Snowden

“The NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyses them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time simply because that's the easiest, most efficient and most valuable way to achieve these ends.”

 

LIZZIE:

And what that revealed, of course, was that a lot of the systems that we use as everyday people are vulnerable to being intercepted by intelligence agencies. 

 

Archival Tape -- Edward Snowden

“So while they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they're collecting your communications to do so. Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere”

 

LIZZIE:

And what it revealed to tech companies is that their systems of communications were also vulnerable. That they couldn't necessarily offer a kind of safe, secure system because intelligence agencies could easily get access to those systems of information exchange. So what that meant, of course, was that encryption started to be rolled out much more broadly. It started to be much more commonplace in emails, in messaging systems, of course, in relation to banking, so that when you can send information over a networked communication system, you can trust that it will only be read by the intended recipient, not somebody else, who might pick it up as it moves through space.

 

BETH:

OK, so encryption is something that we all use every day, even if we're not thinking about it, as you said, you know, the fact that it is so ubiquitous is a result of these revelations that governments were spying on us and accessing all sorts of data. So how have they responded to this new era of mass encryption?

 

LIZZIE:

Well, if you talk to law enforcement or intelligence agencies, they talk about this problem as a problem of going dark, that, in fact, they aren't able to access communications, to do their job, to do investigations, to surveil people for law enforcement purposes. They say it is a huge problem that encryption is now widespread. It's meant that they've been in the ear of lawmakers in all sorts of places all around the world talking about how they might be able to recover some of that capability because it was a pretty good deal for them for a long time. A lot of information moving through space unprotected that they could intercept and use for their purposes. They now say it is a huge imposition that encryption is so widespread and that's affected how they approach these policy questions of how they might be able to access it and what kinds of powers they need to do so.

 

BETH:

Ok So how have lawmakers in Australia responded to those demands from police and security agencies?

 

LIZZIE:

So in 2017 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed a set of legislative powers to break encryption...

 

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Turnbull

...“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...”

 

LIZZIE:

….which is what we now know, as TOLA, the Telecommunications and other Legislation Amendment Act. 

 

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Turnbull

 “...And the Australian Federal Police must have the powers, as do all our other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, to enforce the law online as well as offline…”

 

LIZZIE:

And what these laws essentially did was set up a regime whereby agencies could either request or compel technology companies to give them access to their encrypted systems. That includes getting access to basic information. But also it involves a notice whereby an agency can ask a tech company to build, deliberately, a weakness into an encrypted system for use by that agency. And that's obviously very useful for them if they're targeting particular people. But obviously also means that many people who are using their systems are, in fact, using compromised services without knowing.

 

BETH:

So Lizzie what you're saying is this law, TOLA, allows law enforcement to bypass encryption, access our data, and we might not even know that it's happened?

 

LIZZIE:

Yeah, it's really troubling. So TOLA passed into law in a disgracefully rushed process. To give you an idea, in the United Kingdom, a similar proposal was put which was eventually watered down. They debated that for a period of years, whereas in Australia the bill was tabled and passed within four months with little scrutiny from many important parts of society, but also really insufficient public debate about the implications of these laws. And I think it was a really terrible episode in our social democracy where such significant powers can be introduced into law without sufficient scrutiny.

 

Archival Tape -- House Speaker

“The question is that the amendments are agreed to - all those of that opinion say ‘aye’ - to the contrary ‘no’ - the ayes have it.”

 

LIZZIE:

And TOLA was really just the start. Now, law enforcement and intelligence are asking for even more powers to reach even deeper into our systems of communications.

 

BETH:

We'll be back in a moment.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

BETH:

Lizzie, TOLA became law in 2018 and since then, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have kept asking for even more surveillance powers. Can you tell me, what are the next steps?

 

LIZZIE:

So it's never a dull moment when it comes to law enforcement, intelligence agencies. I don't think they ever think they have enough powers. 

 

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton

“Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I move that we read this bill for a second time; the surveillance legislation amendment, ‘Identify and Disrupt Bill’ of 2020 will enhance the powers ....”

 

LIZZIE:

And I think political representatives never say no when they're requested by these agencies to expand the powers that are available to them.

 

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton

“This bill will allow the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission to shine a light into the darkest recesses of the online world and hold those hiding there to account”

 

LIZZIE:

Peter Dutton talked about it as giving the capacity for law enforcement to shine a light into the darkest recesses of the online world.

 

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton

“Multiple layers of technologies that conceal the identities; IP addresses, jurisdictions, locations and activities of criminals are increasingly hampering investigations into serious crimes. This includes child sexual abuse, terrorism and the trafficking of firearms and illicit drugs.”

 

LIZZIE:

The most recent round of legislative reforms that have been proposed include a set of warrants there called warrants. But in fact, I think that's a bit misleading because they don't actually have to go before a judge in certain instances. But what they will do is facilitate law enforcement access to networks to be able to disrupt those networks and gain access to data as they move through them to essentially reach right into the communications infrastructure that exists not just in Australia, but around the world and monitor it, collect information and conduct extensive surveillance.

 

BETH:

Ok so law enforcement agencies say they need these powers to disrupt criminal networks. But these laws clearly go further than that don’t they? So what are the concerns here?

 

LIZZIE:

Well, the problem with these powers is it's not just an issue for certain sections of society that you might expect, like journalists and whistleblowers and human rights defenders. It's actually got implications for everybody in terms of their digital security and safety. So Microsoft, for example, had a weakness in one of the pieces of software that they sell. And for a long time, the NSA knew about this and exploited that vulnerability to be able to conduct intelligence operations and the like. What then happened was that that vulnerability got out of the NSA, got into the wild and it was used by criminals to gain access to the computer systems of everyday people, of systems like the NSA. What that ultimately led to was the WannaCry ransomware attack. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Newsreader 

It looks at first like an attack just on hospitals in the UK, but it's now becoming clear that this malicious software has run riot around the world. Russia, the United States”

 

LIZZIE:

The NHS in the UK, for example, was affected and it meant that they had to divert ambulances. They couldn't get access to medical records because of this ransomware attack. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified journalist

“Would you believe they’re using pen and paper right now? Their terminals, where they keep all the patient files, were locked down. A clock started ticking down and apparently they have until next Friday to pay a ransom of 3000 bitcoins...”

 

LIZZIE:

And this is all because the NSA knew about this vulnerability, but elected not to tell Microsoft about it. And it's a clear example of how the interests of security agencies can diverge from the public interest.

 

BETH:

Ok so this is what we’re seeing overseas, but if we bring it back to Australia, we’re seeing our government’s effort to disrupt criminal networks and then on the other hand we’re seeing lots of people that are very concerned that this is a breach of their civil liberties and generally maintaining internet security. Do you think that the government is doing the right thing here?

 

LIZZIE:

Well, I think often the way the debate is portrayed is that privacy is in conflict with security. You have to give up some of your privacy in order to allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to look after us and keep us safe. And I think actually the opposite is true, that, in fact, privacy and security work together, that if you have systems that protect people's information as it moves through space, that keeps them secure from criminal activity, from state sponsored hacking, from all sorts of bad stuff that goes on on the Internet. In fact, what's in conflict is security and surveillance as these surveillance agencies start to build up digital weaponry, an arsenal of tools that allow them to do their job, not just to track down criminals that we might think of using the dark web and the like, but also to be able to gain advantages against their international rivals at a state level. So I think what we're seeing is a divergence between the interests of the public and the interests of intelligence and security agencies. And I think it's the job of politicians to do a better job of acting for the public rather than just acceding to the demands of the surveillance state.

 

BETH:

Lizzie, thank you so much for your time.

 

LIZZIE:

Thanks for having me.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

[Theme Music starts]

 

BETH:

Also in the news today…

 

Australia recorded its first Covid-19 related death in 2021 yesterday, with a woman in her 90s from Sydney’s south-west passing away over the weekend. NSW recorded 77 new cases of Covid-19 on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases in this latest outbreak to 566. The state Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned that the case load on Monday could exceed 100.

 

And Ash Barty has broken Australia’s 41 year drought at Wimbledon by winning the Grand Slam. Barty is the first Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980 to win Wimbledon.

 

I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music ends]

 

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