Australian government ‘drunk on surveillance’

Alarm over assault on encryption, push for national facial recognition system

Bipartisan attacks on privacy in the name of law enforcement and national security are an indication that Australia is abdicating its commitment to human rights, according to Brett Solomon.

Solomon, the executive director of international digital rights group Access Now, is in Australia as part of the Human Rights and Technology Conference — an initiative of the Human Rights Commission.

Government moves to increase law enforcement agencies’ ability to access encryption communications and the support at both a federal and state level for the creation of a national facial recognition system are two of the recent developments that have alarmed human rights advocates.

“If you take a step back and you add all of these pieces together, from facial recognition technologies to mass surveillance of Australians without suspicion to the investment in drones – it creates a picture of a government that is drunk on surveillance,” Solomon told Computerworld.

“When you have a population that is monitored, surveilled, tracked and databased, it portends poorly for the future,” he added.

Access Now has expressed particular alarm at the government’s attack on encryption, with the group recently coordinating  an open letter that was endorsed by rights organisations, privacy activists and tech companies and called on the government to refrain from any legislation that could potentially weaken access to encrypted communications services.

The government says that it supports strong encryption but has warned that encrypted messaging applications are being used by criminals and terrorists. Canberra has said it will introduce legislation to tackle the issue, but has yet to reveal how it will boost police access to services used by law-breakers without undermining the use of the services for legitimate purposes.

“Encryption is a foundational part of the Internet,” Solomon said.

“It protects integrity of information, it allows people to have a conversation privately without intruders and governments around the world and economies have benefited significantly from encryption.”

Weakening encryption will affect everyone who relies on encryption — not just the targets of law enforcement investigations. “Encryption is the pathway to security, not its enemy, Solomon said. “I think we would see a less secure Australia as a result of a deliberate weakening of encryption.”

“It would send a very concerning message to the rest of the world and in particular I think the region,” he added.

“Australia is such an important political and economic power in the region; to be sending that message to the Pacific and countries in South East Asia that the right to privacy and freedom of expression mean so little in the digital age would prove a greenlight for non-democratic states to follow suit.”

Governments, law enforcement bodies and national security agencies “are seeing encryption as an impediment to accessing information that they see as important to criminal investigations and other law enforcement activities,” Solomon said.

“So there is a significant push by many governments around the world to weaken encryption and also in some cases to criminalise encryption.

In recent years many of the most contentious pieces of national security legislation — the introduction of the data retention regime, for example — have enjoyed bipartisan support.

Solomon said that the government together with the opposition have created “knee jerk policies that satisfy a national security appetite” but are “ill-conceived”.

“When the consequences are so significant and so long term, I think it’s absolutely essential that the Australian government takes pause and has a think more deeply about [for example] what will be the consequences of a centralised facial recognition database — when you add that to artificial intelligence and geolocation and the Internet of Things.”

A “pause” would give Australians the time to consider “how these laws will play out as technologies emerge and as technologies evolve,” he said.

“We’re creating laws today for tomorrow’s technologies without properly anticipating what the consequences will be,” he added.

Solomon said that ideally Australian civil society, including digital and human rights organisations, journalists, healthcare professionals and disability advocates,  would work in a “multi-stakeholder fashion” and engage with government and industry to address the issues — but noted that there is limited opportunity because in many cases the legislation is already passed or in train.

“It feels like digital civil society is still emerging whilst the legislation is being already passed,” he said.

He said that the courts could potentially act as a “backstop” to limit overreach by government, but that the tech sector — both local tech companies and international companies with a local presence — also had a role to play in fighting back against ill-conceived legislation.

Surveys show that Australians are concerned about their digital rights, and the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association “but they’re not exactly sure how to take control of that,” he said.

“I think there’s a real opportunity to connect with and mobilise Australians from all ages and all groups, but it is difficult to channel those concerns into legislative change,” he said. 

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