If Encryption Laws Go Through, Australia May Lose Apple

Josh Butler

Posted Thursday, December 6, 2018 4:04 AM , updated Thursday, December 6, 2018 6:10 AM

Apple may pull out of the local market, the Aussie tech industry could be crippled and hackers could crack previously unbreakable codes under "outrageous" encryption legislation the government wants to ram through parliament.

The federal government has long been pushing for law enforcement agencies to have access to encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Signal.

The government, with the support of Labor, want to force tech companies to alter their apps so that communications can be monitored.

A push to ram the laws through parliament on Thursday, the last sitting day of the year, failed as both sides failed to reach agreement -- meaning the laws will be delayed until at least 2019.

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The legislation can force tech workers to cooperate with government and law enforcement in installing backdoors to access encrypted data -- but these people cannot disclose the request to anyone, under penalty of several years in jail.

Experts in the industry say this could see people either jailed for simply doing their jobs, or fired for essentially hacking their own company by installing vulnerabilities in programs.

"The Australian government want to recruit average IT workers as spies."

"But the target isn’t a terror organisation or an international crime gang, it’s the company they work for," Alfie John, a Melbourne security programmer, told 10 daily.

This could see tech companies simply refuse to work with Australian authorities. Experts have pointed to the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, where Apple refused to comply with FBI requests to unlock the suspect's iPhone, as an example of how international tech giants may respond to such legislation.

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There are concerns that such companies could pull out of Australia entirely, rather than work under such a system.

The legislation has been panned by sources as varied as the Law Council of Australia, and Atlassian CEO MIke Cannon-Brookes.

The legislation -- known as the Assistance and Access bill -- will likely be pushed through parliament on Thursday, the last sitting day of the year.

Tech experts have warned that the laws are drafted in such a way that people could be jailed for simply doing their jobs, Australian software will be blacklisted on global markets, and international tech giants may simply refuse to do business in Australia.

The government has specifically insisted the legislation does not allow for "backdoors" in software. Justin Warren, an IT consultant and Electronic Frontiers Australia board member disagrees.

"That's not how it works. If you break encryption in one place, it's broken everywhere," he said.

"The backdoor will there. They say they can keep it safe, but they can't."

Dr Suelette Dreyfus, a cybersecurity and privacy researcher at the University of Melbourne, agreed.

"Communications can't simultaneously 'be secure', and 'be wiretap-able'," she told 10 daily.

"There will be smart criminals who will find and use these backdoors in all sorts of dangerous ways."

Warren pointed out how national security organisations around the world have had their tools stolen and used by criminals. This could expose any platform that uses encryption technology, from online banking to mobile gaming or dating apps like Tinder.

"It is that serious. It is outrageous," Warren said.

"The NSA had a lot of special tools stolen by criminal syndicates. If it gets out there, someone will buy it."

Digital rights activist Asher Wolf had similar fears.

"[The vulnerabilities] will be captured by somebody, a foreign actor, and then we'll see some of those tools being used out in the wild. That's an atrocity for security and privacy, particularly around banking and online security," she told 10 daily.

Elsewhere, there are fears the legislation could effectively cripple Australia's local tech industry. Warren claimed overseas customers and investors would be "suspicious" of Australian products from now on, as they would be unsure whether it contains government-mandated backdoors.

"Our government refuses to use Huawei because of fears the Chinese government has put backdoors in their software. Australia will be the Huawei for the rest of the world," Warren said.

"It could kill us."

Wolf warned of a "brain drain", as top tech minds may move overseas to work rather than have to operate under such a system.

READ MORE: Labor 'Playing Games' With Terrorists, Cormann Claims

READ MORE: Encrypted Messaging Bill To Pass After Labor Strikes Deal With Government

"People can't do their jobs as engineers, developers or testers if they're under duress," she said.

Dreyfus also feared a crippling impact on local tech companies.

"Right now Australian tech products enjoy sales internationally because of their great reputation and that creates jobs here in Australia. This Bill will rip a hole in that the trust that reputation is built on," she said.

Warren acknowledged that some of the fears raised by the tech industry sound hyperbolic, but warned that the effects of the legislation could be chilling and were not being properly understood or considered by lawmakers.

"They're ignoring every expert. Software companies, global manufacturers, civil experts, academics, everybody has been saying this is a stupid bill and terribly dangerous," he said.