Australia spyware bill driven by paranoia and hypocrisy

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In what appears to be the height of hypocrisy, the Australian government wants to compel the nation’s telecoms companies to install what is, basically, spyware on customers’ phones under broad new national security plans.

This comes in the wake of a ban on Chinese telecoms vendors Huawei and ZTE from providing 5G technology to Australia. In a joint statement from then Acting Minister for Home Affairs, Scott Morrison (now Australia’s Prime Minister) and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, it was claimed that “the core network is where the more sensitive functions occur including access control, authentication, voice and data routing, and billing” and “while we are protected as far as possible by current security controls, the new network, with its increased complexity, would render these current protections ineffective in 5G.”

The statement, like something from the Donald Trump playbook, went on to outline that “the Government considers that the involvement of vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflict with Australian law, may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect a 5G network from unauthorised access or interference.”

Let’s not beat around the bush – the underlying message here is that Australia fears 5G core networks could be compromised by some secret embedded code that would allow foreign governments (China by inference) to access the nation’s most secret data willy-nilly. Oh, and none of this was backed by any tangible proof that this secret code even existed – and even if it did, why would the government not encrypt its most sensitive data?

The latest episode in the Australian government’s security paranoia soap opera is being led by the current Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, who failed miserably in a recent coup attempt to become Prime Minister. He has become the target of the opposition and press with accusations of wrong-doing in his past ministerial roles and is probably the least popular politician in the country at this time.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that he brings this poisoned chalice to the Australian public in the hope that it convinces them that the government actually gives a stuff about their security and privacy. Wrong!

Dutton is pushing a bill to bestow new powers to Australia’s security agencies in response to the rising use of encryption by criminals. “The bill provides law enforcement agencies with additional powers for overt and covert computer access. Computer access involves the use of software to collect information directly from devices,” he said.

Translation: mandatory smartphone spyware that sends all your data to the police. And if you think that only applies to phone manufacturers, think again, states a Sydney Morning Herald report:

“Telcos are part of an expanded group, which includes device makers like Apple, search engines like Google, and social media apps like Facebook, which could potentially be compelled to help federal authorities gain access to encrypted communications, according to submissions made on a draft bill currently before parliament for consideration.”

Needless to say, the tech industry has unanimously denounced the bill, warning that these proposed “security vulnerabilities, even if they are built to combat crime, leaves us open to attack from criminals”. And they are not wrong.

The greatest hypocrisy surely is that Huawei and ZTE, also suppliers of handsets to the Australian market, will be expected to expose their users’ private data after being barred from supplying core network equipment that the government claims would jeopardize national security.

Not only will Australian telcos and the Australian public be lumbered with higher costs and potentially sub-optimal networks as a result of the vendor bans, now they could face pressure to enforce legislation opening up handsets that will be costly and highly unpopular.

If US attempts to unlock handset encryption are any indication, the suppliers will play no part in it. Just how important this market is to them will have to be weighed up if the legislation goes through. At worst, Australia could end up with very safe 5G networks but no handsets to use on them!

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