Ignorant Oz politicians prevent meaningful metadata debate

The attorney-general doesn't know what 'online' means. His opposite number is a parrot. When it comes to Australian citizens' online rights, you can forget about meaningful debate.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

On Monday this week, Australia's Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus demonstrated that he is not competent to make decisions relating to the online world — and certainly not decisions with deep and controversial significance, such as passing mandatory data retention laws that effectively turn internet service providers (ISPs) into proxy signals intelligence (SIGINT) agencies. Because Attorney-General Dreyfus doesn't even know what "online" means.

Here's what Dreyfus said at Monday's launch of the Australian Electoral Commission's (AEC) new online voter registration tool, which he hopes will encourage more young people to vote — a real problem, given that there's half a million eligible voters aged 18 to 25 missing from the electoral roll.

Perhaps I shouldn't say just young people, but particularly young people who we think are likely to take advantage of this new online registration tool. And it's a move away from what my children had described to me — they're all in their 20s — as not online, even though it has been possible for a long time to go online, get the form that you need to register to vote and fill it out, you have to use a printer.

But according to a lot of young people to whom I've spoken, the previous system was not really online registration. What we have now with this new application is full online registration, where you will be able to fill out the entire form online using your smartphone, using your iPad or tablet, or of course using a PC, fill out the entire form, and then sign online using, depending on what application you're using, a stylus or a mouse or your finger.

And that's a real achievement.

The AEC's enrol to vote system is indeed a real achievement — apart from the fundamentally ignorant requirement that a person's name always consists of at least two words. Setting up a multi-part web form isn't rocket science. Making sure it conforms to federal electoral laws and those in every state is tricky, though, and the overall system has to be robust against the threat of electoral fraud. Congratulations, AEC.

But are you comfortable with an attorney-general who only knows that the previous process wasn't online because "a lot of young people" told him? That he himself didn't understand that basic concept?

Now, we shouldn't expect Dreyfus to be a web developer any more than we'd expect the transport minister to be a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer, but we do expect them to know whether the plane they're in is actually flying or not. It's more than five years since I wrote that for business leaders, "I don't understand computers" is no longer acceptable. The same applies to politicians.

This isn't a party-political issue, of course. The shadow attorney-general, Liberal Senator George Brandis, shows no signs of being any better.

A scan through everything Brandis has said in the Senate this year reveals little more than debating tactics and routine attacks on the government that parrot the day's approved Coalition talking points. Following allegations in May that the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had been hacked, Brandis had nothing to tell a security conference beyond a boilerplate cybercrime-is-scary squawk and another round of predictable political point scoring.

I'm assuming that if Brandis has anything intelligent or insightful to say about Australia's digital future, he'd have said it by now.

This is a global problem.

In the wake of recent revelations about the US National Security Agency's (NSA) metadata collection and the PRISM program, last week's Liquidmatrix Security Digest podcastincluded a discussion of online rights from a primarily Canadian perspective. According to senior information security consultant James Arlen, some of the US government's recent hearings about technology law have set the stage for impending change.

"We're at a real tipping point," Arlen said. "It is no longer reasonable for a legislator to be ignorant of technology. It's kinda funny to poke fun at people who can see different countries from their houses and s*** like that" — remember the series of tubes incident? — "[but] you can't accept that any longer ... We expect not just functional literacy, but we expect technological literacy, because this is the world in which we live."

Back in February, the Australian government's chief technical officer John Sheridan issued a plea to journalists: Don't dumb it down. "The people who understand technology outnumber those who don't by two to one, [so] write for us, not for somebody else." The same applies to politicians.

As Arlen reminded us, the technological literacy needed to understand issues like data retention is very, very high. "To be able to say 'I understand what it means when I create this log', or to get us out of this very, very expert wordsmithing around metadata — if you actually understand all of this stuff, you understand that metadata is nearly as dangerous as the content itself."

Now look back at the laughable one-page definition of metadata that the Attorney-General's Department came up with last year.

"Quite literally, the future belongs to those who see it coming," Arlen said. Yet, our political so-called leaders are still very much at the back end of the bell curve. So if they're not leading us, who is? Anyone?

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