Political clash of luddite QCs and tech are a dangerous combination

Australia faces a dangerous conflation of technology-driven surveillance and an almost total lack of technical comprehension from the political class.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Technology, surveillance, and politics have always gone hand in hand, but with the consumer-driven and smartphone-addicted state of affairs being what they are in the computing industry, it has never been easier for governments to force others to hand over vast realms of data on their populations.

Whereas in the past, actual police work may have had to have been used to find out where a person frequents, now with the help of smartphones and a warrant, authorities can obtain a collection of location data with ease, be it an Apple or Google device.

With safeguards and proper oversight from politicians and civilian administrators, it is theoretically a simple exercise to maintain a balance between security and liberty, but as with so many theoretical assumptions, the reality is removed from the theory.

Take the situation currently unfolding in Australia around data retention and copyright infringement.

In the midst of a policy announcement that was dripping in patriotic motifs — flags, nationalism, and a concept called 'Team Australia' — was a quick glazing over of a new initiative to be developed that would require the nation's telecommunication companies and ISPs to retain "metadata" for two years.

No explanation for what constituted the government's idea of "metadata" was offered, even under direct questioning, Australia's chief law officer, Attorney-General George Brandis QC, could not clarify the government's position and only served to muddy the water even further. In this task, Brandis was ably assisted by his Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who successfully managed to put the wind up every technically-literate person across the island continent when he spoke of metadata as the browsing history of individuals, and as an improper analogy, associated postal envelopes with metadata.

Eventually, the technically-knowledgeable member of Cabinet, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull — who had hiterto been sidelined in the debate, and had to reportedly read about the data retention proposal that he would be enacting and negotiating in a newspaper — entered the fray to clean up the mess and explain the situation.

Turnbull ruled out collecting browsing history of individuals, and then admitted days later that tech-savvy users will know how to avoid having their IP addresses logged against sites they visit, and that the scheme would still be costly and impractical.

If driving Australians towards VPNs and other encryption schemes was the goal of the government's data retention announcement, then it worked like a treat.

Zenmate, a VPN-like Chrome browser plugin, said last week that it had seen a spike of interest from Australia.

"We have seen a 60 percent increase in visitors from Australia to the Chrome store over the past three weeks," said ZenMate co-founder Simon Specka. "We saw similar results following recent internet restrictions when Turkey's PM banned Twitter."

Perhaps it is an overreaction to compare Australia's data retention proposal, which Turnbull clarified was simply a pairing of IP address and subscriber account, to the sort of online government intervention that occurs in Turkey, but it all could have been avoided with a small dose of knowledge about how information and communication technologies work, along with an understanding that being sparse with the details would make those informed of such things assume the worst.

The looming issue hanging over data retention is that it could be the first of a series of incremental steps that encroach on civil liberties because "Team Australia" claims it needs more capability to thwart the threat of terrorism.

Recent comments from Telstra CEO David Thodey that the dominant Australian telco collects more data on its customers than the government is currently after, does little to dissuade a future government that extending the scheme would be much of an impost.

In a recent interview with Alastair MacGibbon, general manager of security with Dimension Data Australia and a former federal agent with the Australian Federal Police, I asked MacGibbon about the old saying that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from surveillance, and if that is the case, why not invite intelligence services directly into one's home.

"As a former police officer, I'd say to you that I agree wholeheartedly with the ability to be able to sit in your lounge room from time to time using a listening device and having a telephone intercept on your phone," MacGibbon said.

"But I also understand that there has to be an awful lot of civil oversight of that activity and that it shouldn't be a blanket authority because the minute you make it a blanket authority, it will get abused.

"You need to be able to justify your actions, and that goes the same for any agency, in my view, collecting information."

The oversight that MacGibbon says is necessary, and the body that would normally provide it in Australia, the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (OIGIS), said on Friday that it will need additional resources to simply cope with new powers that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is set to gain to expand its ability to tap computers.

Not only will it need funding, but OIGIS said that it will need technical know-how to be able to keep an eye on Australia's spies.

"The increasing complexity of computer related operations means that the IGIS office requires increased access to technical expertise to oversight these operations effectively," the OIGIS said in a parliamentary submission.

The combination of the level of technical aptitude shown by the government in its announcement of data retention, mixed in with OIGIS' admission that is going to struggle to keep up with ASIO's new hacking powers, leaves little doubt where the technical knowledge in Canberra, and the political world in general, lies.

It should come as no shock that across the world, the politicians that create the legislation that impacts on citizen's lives are far from domain specialists — although many are learned, it is rare nowadays to see an ex-professional enter politics from outside of the legal fraternity — more often than not we are left with career politicians with little to offer apart from how to get legislation drawn up and passed.

However, that doesn't mean that the other arms of the political environment — the press and the electorate — should let the neophytes off easy.

But as technology allows information to be compiled, stored, and subsequently handed over with the issue of an electronic warrant, few questions are asked by those in a position to peer into the machines of governance. The furore over data retention in Australia was a rare time that the press gallery took a technical issue and ran with it, even if many didn't have a perfect grasp on the exact difference between what an IP address and a URL were, at least the result was the correct one.

Equally though, the impetus is on the electorate to create a fuss when its governments do something that it does not agree with, and by that I mean more than sign an online petition, which must go down as the single most inept way to express an opinion yet conjured by humans. When it comes to influencing decisions, writing an angry email or calling up the office of your local member or their political party is a far better way to get results than acting as a keyboard warrior and being very angry about your feelings on social media.

We live in a time where technology's ability to manipulate society is at an all time high, and it will reach an even greater level tomorrow.

Mobility, increased connectivity, the cloud, cryptography, and other computing concepts are only going to further embed their influence on us all, and we need to make sure that we get the benefits of their use, and minimise the drawbacks as much as we can.

In the past, it was possible for technically-adept people to be consigned to the metaphorical, sometimes physical, basement and be left to their own devices, but over the past half-century, it has become increasingly central to how people go about their daily lives, and it is high time that our political classes caught up with that fact.

It would be preferable if those who decided our laws had an idea of what they are talking about, but in lieu of wisdom, it is up to the rest of us to slap some sense into them, and be eternally vigilant about the naive or willfully ignorant making decisions beyond their capability.

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