In a gross violation of its citizens’ privacy, the Australian government has proposed legislation to demand backdoor surveillance access to Facebook and other social media platforms. Why is the government trying to intrude on citizens’ privacy and how might this affect their daily lives?
Australian politicians have long been enthusiastic about enacting surveillance, but critics say they don’t understand the basics of encryption. In 2017, Prime Minister Turnbull was derided for saying that Australia’s laws would trump the laws of mathematics when it came to encryption. Now, the government is pushing for other ways to access user data.
Unfortunately, those other methods might represent even greater threats to citizen privacy and security. End-to-end encryption is difficult or impossible to unlock, so accessing it requires a backdoor – a weakness encoded into every message that the government can unlock. The problem with this approach, as social media companies have pointed out, is that there’s no reason why hackers and criminals wouldn’t also be able to exploit that weakness. Therefore, the Australian government would have to mandate access at the point of entry – or, in other words, within your device. This would represent an even greater breach of privacy.
The Australian government has been quiet about how they actually intend to force companies to do their bidding. The most likely approaches would probably involve either backdoor device access or reprogrammed apps that send your messages to the Australian government before they are encrypted and sent to the recipient.
The motivation behind the push for more surveillance, according to the government, is an ongoing battle against crime, terrorism, and pedophilia. However, social media platforms are far from the only place for criminals to contact one another, and they’re certainly not going to be the first choice for more serious offenders like terrorists. There are far more secretive and less widely used platforms that haven’t had as many publicized hacks or privacy breaches as the world’s leading social media platforms have.
Ironically, Facebook isn’t exactly known as a paragon of privacy as it is. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a number of new revelations about privacy abuses have surfaced, including the fact that they’ve been sharing your information with phone makers for decades. If Facebook agreed to share the data with the Australian government, would the breach just be a drop in the bucket?
Around the world, governments are lagging behind when it comes to cybersecurity. In the US, most agencies are severely lacking in cybersecurity measures, and data used by the government has been hacked into on numerous occasions. The Australian government isn’t perfect, either – even their naval and military servers have been hacked into.
Moreover, most political critics claim that the Australian government has a poor grasp of the basics of privacy and cybersecurity. After all, it took them about a year to understand why companies can’t decrypt their own end-to-end encryption and why inserting backdoors would lead to a cybersecurity nightmare. And then, again, there’s Prime Minister Turnbull’s famous statement: “The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”
This means that if we put aside the inherent right to privacy for a moment (which we really shouldn’t do in the current environment), it’s still a bad idea to let the government snoop on Australians. That data might be collected for a noble cause, but there’s no telling how it might be abused by the individuals who make up the government or by individuals who access that data against the government’s will.