The Australian government has decided it can beat math at its own game. The laws of math will be defeated by the laws of Australia, the government declared last year. In an effort to tackle something this article calls "terror encryption," the Home Office says laws punching holes in encryption for government access are just around the corner.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may not understand the laws of mathematics or how signing a bunch of words into law doesn't actually suspend them, but he does know tech companies are going to figure it out for him. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton agrees: the government just needs to mandate broken encryption and the tech companies will handle the rest. It's for the good of the country, if not the world.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton says ubiquitous encryption - a tool used for secure personal banking platforms and some messaging services - has become a major obstacle to terror investigations.
"We know that more than 90 per cent of counter-terrorism targets are using it for communications, including for attack planning here," Mr Dutton told the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.
"More than 90 per cent." That's seems high! I'm sure it's based on rigorous examination of facts and probably includes terrorists visiting bank websites or anything else with an HTTPS URL. Dutton wants platform providers and device makers to make it as easy as dropping a wiretap on a phone line, so it's clear the government isn't just seeking access to data at rest.
Whatever it is that the Australian government wants, it seems unable to articulate in words. The analogies used (phone wiretaps) suggest the stuff Dutton says he doesn't want is exactly what he wants.
Mr Dutton said he didn't want a "backdoor key" to encrypted devices or a licence to hack into services.
But he argued law enforcement access to encrypted communications should be on the same basis as telephone and other intercepts, in response to warrants issued by the court.
If Dutton wants access to ongoing communications on platforms secured with end-to-end encryption, than a backdoor or a golden key is really what he wants, even if he's unwilling to say so in public. Dutton also suggests companies will be punished for "allowing" terrorists to communicate using their encrypted platforms.
"Companies ought to be concerned with the reputational harm that comes from terrorists and criminals using their encryption and social media platforms for illicit ends," he said.
"As a society we should hold these companies responsible when their service is used to plan or facilitate unlawful activity."
I'm sure Dutton has more in mind than officious bad-mouthing of uncooperative tech companies by government officials. If holes are mandated, companies will be facing more than "reputational damage." But tut-tutting about scofflaw tech companies isn't going to budge the public opinion needle. Many people trust their communication platforms far more than their governments. And they value personal security and privacy far more than they value government access to communications, no matter how often the word "terrorism" is deployed as a justification.