Why you should worry democracies are turning against tech companies

MALCOLM TURNBULL’S government made waves internationally when he and Attorney-General George Brandis got up on stage and announced to the world they would be pursuing aggressive policies that would compel technology companies to cooperate with Australian police in investigative actions involving their technologies.

According to a press statement delivered two weeks ago, tech companies will be obliged to act in accordance with regulations imposed on telcos, who must disclose user information to enforcement authorities.

“To enable us  – 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,” Turnbull said, according to Gizmodo Australia

The issue, which has become a focal point for the global debate, has become mired within even bigger conversations about the role of government, surveillance and rights to privacy. Turnbull’s government has become, rightly so, a target for anti-surveillance advocates, while accusations of collusion with terrorists are lobbed back. But perhaps we should put Turnbull’s and Brandis’ comments into context, within the larger issue of the increasingly dominant role of technology in our lives.

According to Jon Lawrence, executive director of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a think tank that works with stakeholders and government in forming technology policy, the proposal comes at a time when it’s unclear what triggered it, though he did point out major political change usually results in higher upticks in communications going underground.

Lawrence points out Turnbull’s proposal might have the unintended effect of pushing users – both malicious and not – off major platforms and into small, under-protected platforms. Furthermore, he pointed out the push by the government does not make sense, as there are already laws put in place that give expansive powers to enforcement authorities, including permissions to install spyware into citizens’ devices without their knowledge.

“Malcolm Turnbull has been strong on civil liberties before,” he said, noting Turnbull’s previous support for encryption and metadata protections.

“It’s quite startling to see him following [British Prime Minister Theresa May] in that counterproductive push.”

His point about May is significant, as it’s important to remember Australia is not the only country pushing for more stringent actions against encryption and more cooperation from technology companies. Australia is part of the Five Eyes Intelligence Pact, a coalition of countries who have agreed to share a broad range of intelligence. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand are the other four members. 

SEE ALSO: Australia to push for greater control over encrypted messaging at ‘Five Eyes’ meeting

Australia’s move to wrestle technology companies into compliance is part of a trend of traditionally liberal countries who are turning on the digital world. Apple was embroiled in a long-running court case with federal authorities, stemming from the company’s refusal to unlock an iPhone used by terrorists in the San Bernardino mass shooting. 

WhatsApp, Apple and Google are among companies that have refused to cooperate with governments, be it to hack a locked iPhone or reveal the encoded messages, and it has earned them the ire of world leaders from Theresa May to Donald Trump.

The move is worrying because it’s quite unclear as to how exactly politicians intend on legislating on the issue. “We have to make some assumptions,” Lawrence said, noting the lack of clarity on the part of Turnbull, as well as their evident lack of understanding about how encryption works.

SEE ALSO: Why we need to start thinking about encryption as math

As Kevin Yeung, a senior consultant with ThoughtWorks, a technology consultancy in Singapore, pointed out, their efforts probably won’t work because in each scenario, no matter which approach they may take, whether it’s providing authorities specialized decryption keys, planting backdoors or banning encryption, Internet users will emerge as the loser.

However, it’s concerning when leaders begin to turn their rhetoric against technology companies, positioning them as anti-national security. The country that has perhaps had the most significant impact on the relationship between governments and their citizens’ privacy is the UK, where the so-called “Snooper’s Charter” has led to expansive powers for authorities to spy on individuals, and according to Turnbull, is the formal basis for their own laws. 

“The UK government has gone off the reservation with their appointment to surveillance. You don’t protect a society or civil liberties by dismantling them,” said Lawrence, also noting that Australia and the UK are particularly vulnerable due to their lack of formal constitutional protections.

WhatsApp, Apple and Google are among companies that have refused to cooperate with governments. Source: Shutterstock

Brexit will also have a significant impact, as it will exempt the UK from complying with the European Union Human Rights Act, which previously stood in place of an actual bill of rights.

“It’s a fundamental problem”, Lawrence says, when Western democracies are undermining civil liberties that are the very nature of society. In doing so, these leaders are laying the ground for weaker protections against cyber attacks. In many cases, their lack of a nuanced understanding of the balance between privacy and security will negatively impact the way they interact with their citizens, as occurred in Brazil, where a Facebook executive was jailed for being unable to release WhatsApp information.

SEE ALSO:  WhatsApp can be ‘hacked’ via SIM cards – FBI contractor

This issue should concern all of us, as it deals closely with the choices we make when we use technology, which can be either a force for great innovation or great harm. The balancing act of both security and privacy can be managed, but not if governments are beginning to, en masse, turn on their people.

“Governments, civil right groups, tech companies need to talk about the best approach to these things,” Yeung said.

“The government is facing it like it’s good guys versus bad guys, but the reality is bad guys aren’t defeated by breaking encryption. It’s more about the groundwork police has to do.”