Monday, 5 June 2017

Politicians Jumping On-Line to Surf the Information Super Highway

Insert naff cyber stock image here

The above UK Labour MP’s Tweet is a great example of everything wrong with most of our elected officials’ understanding of the internet. As remarkable as the internet is on a technical level, it is no longer remarkable in daily use, yet for many of our politicians, it remains a novelty worthy of its own romantic comedy (Now Showing: You’ve Got Hate Mail).

“The Internet” needs capitalisation because, to these taxpayer-funded dullards, it is a new frontier where criminals, paedophiles, and — terror of terrors — Muslim extremists wait in prey for their next victims. It isn’t just another piece of critical infrastructure in need of investment and protection, like highways or the power grid, it is a niche curiosity. It is the Information Superhighway. It is Cyberspace. It is the animated shooting stars of Netscape 3.0. It is best viewed at 640x480.

This is what makes the current push by some politicians to allow the state access to encrypted services, at best, silly and at worst, incredibly dangerous.

Encryption is vital to the functioning of our information-based society. Without it — and I’m not exaggerating here — society falls apart. It isn’t some optional extra beloved of terrorists to plan their nefarious deeds in the dark, it is what keeps our online banking safe, our personal data secure, our private conversations private. It’s what gives business the confidence to do business without the worry of proprietary data ending up in the hands of competitors. Of course, no system is completely secure, but without encryption, you’d may as well tattoo your bank PIN on your forehead for all to see.

Without trust that the everyday transactions we make (financial or otherwise) are free from illegitimate interference or interception, the very systems which underpin modern society collapse.

Ultimately, attempts to make systems less secure for the evil few ultimately make systems less secure for all. The tools used by the "good" guys to access the "bad" guys ultimately end up being used by the "bad" guys against everyone. This is not a theory, it was recently borne out by the WannaCry ransomware attack which was based on Windows vulnerabilities hoarded by the NSA, but reportedly not shared with Microsoft until they were leaked to the public.

Our pluralistic societies are regressing. The United States is joining Syria and Nicaragua on axis of inaction on climate change; the United Kingdom seeks to join China, Iran and North Korea and other autocratic states in controlling the internet. The worst part is of all this is that there's no evidence such controls will make ordinary people safer, in fact only the opposite.

Worst of all, no evidence has been presented that encrypted message services played a role in the latest atrocity in London, but even if these services did, they bear no more culpability than the manufacturers of the knives they carried, or the maker of the van they drove, or the operator of the roads on which they travelled.

In the vast majority of terrorist incidents in the West, the perpetrators have been known to the authorities. How will access to WhatsApp or iMessage or Signal help agencies when they fail to act on the information they already have?

Alas, even those politicians who should know better are pushing to undermine the foundations of our information society. The man who "practically invented the internet in Australia", Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared war on encryption — and the apps he himself has admitted using instead of secured government comms — saying of encrypted messaging apps, "security services need to get access to them".

It's sad that the tech literacy of our parliamentarians hasn't progressed much since the Commonwealth Minister for Communications —ya know, the guy in charge of teh Interwebs — stated that broadband was primarily for consuming porn and gambling, and that Mr and Mrs Average would never want such a service (and that the state had little role in ensuring reasonable access to decent internet). Or who can forget the Attorney-General's misadventures in the land of metadata ("well...well...well...the web address")? It would not be an issue if these dunces had responsibility for, I don't know, tiny lapel pin flags, or garbage collection, but they claim to make laws that affect millions of people and billions of dollars without the slightest hint of curiosity.

With democratic leaders sounding every bit the autocrat these days, there has never been a more exciting time to be innovative, agile...and encrypted.

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