Australia's Controversial Encryption Legislation May Threaten More Than Online Privacy

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By Simon Harman, CEO of Loki, an Australia-based privacy network which will allow users to transact and communicate privately and anonymously over the internet

We live in an age when it is no longer surprising that authorities make use of technological surveillance to keep a watchful eye on those who may be running afoul of the law. The internet age brought with it new mediums for nefarious actors to engage in illicit activities. Legislation and surveillance technologies have vied to keep pace. However, following the introduction of new encryption laws in Australia, it is time to consider the implications of how this intrusive legislation may impact not only the individual, but national business, and the technology sector as a whole.

The recently passed Assistance and Access Bill 2018 (AAA18) enables Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies to force companies to remove layers of electronic protection from user data, assist with the implementation of new surveillance capabilities, and to provide information that authorities deem necessary for national security, to name but a few of the wide-reaching powers it grants. These intrusive measures may be applied to all “communication service providers,” which could include almost any service provider or product making use of the internet.

As a result of the AAA18, not only will a wealth of personal information and messages online be accessible to government agencies, it will be illegal for service providers to notify users that their data is being accessed. Those who fail to comply, or who leak information about requests for information, face up to 10 years in prison.

These wide-reaching laws raise serious questions surrounding individuals’ right to privacy online. As a result of new legislation, messages sent over popular applications, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, will be corruptible at the whim of law enforcement agencies. The information they can gather can easily be shared with Australia’s allies, most notably those in the the Five Eyes Alliance, which includes the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, so that this Australian legislation effectively grants surveillance tools to the governments of the entire English-speaking world.

In a digital age, online services have become the lifeblood of political activism, corporate and civic activity, and discussion and dialogue across the globe. The maintenance of private platforms for discourse and interaction has been critical for the development of healthy democracies and for freedom of speech. Intrusive laws serving the “national interest” may prove, if not disingenuous, to be ill-advised, diluting the freedoms necessary for a healthy democracy, and ordering the development of backdoors for widely used software which enemies of Australia could exploit.

Beyond the breach of privacy for anyone interacting over the internet, the AAA18 is poised to have detrimental effects on the Australian technology and business sectors. For internet businesses with a stake in the Australian market, the passage of the AAA18 into law may deter them from participating strongly in the country, and may even drive them from the market altogether. The vibrant national start-up community also hangs in the balance.

Subject to possible surveillance and monitoring by third parties, technology startups operating within or based in Australia will have to work to maintain consumer confidence. It is possible that privacy concerns will make Australian telcos and service providers far less attractive to consumers compared to international competitors. Stiff competition internationally may force companies and developers to move overseas, resulting in a “brain drain” for the local economy. The long-term effects of these laws will surely be felt by the local economy, as innovative businesses are forced overseas or out of business.

As new laws and technologies emerge to assist in online surveillance, the case for privacy-centric tools has never been stronger. With new laws threatening individual rights, as well as the local business and technology sectors, it is imperative that a way to maintain privacy online be found, promoted, and adopted. Open source technology and decentralised communications present a viable way forward to ensure the security of personal data in the face of increasingly intrusive legislation.

While encrypted services have until now provided ample security to millions of users, the centralized servers of companies such as Signal or WhatsApp can now be accessed by government actors, on demand, and without consumer knowledge. Only by decentralizing these networks, so that user metadata is not stored by a single party, can we defend ourselves from overzealous legislation which threatens our fundamental rights.

It is time to ask ourselves how much is truly stake with each new infraction upon our privacy, and how we can ensure that the possibility of secure, private networks remains. Not only will these answers come to bear on Australian consumers and companies, the economy, and our sense of security online, they will also reveal the necessity of creating new ways to interact over the internet, so that freedom of speech, and the healthy democracies which the AAA18 claims to defend, can remain vibrant, successful, and healthy.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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