Australia: Just ban it
Delivered on 05 March 2019 by Justin Pyvis. About a 6 min read.
Last week I wrote about how a number of Western governments around the world feared the possibility of being compromised by the Chinese government. Namely, they worried that if they allowed China's Huawei to install components in their respective 5G networks, they would be taking an unnecessary risk. That fear was so great that the Australian government went as far as banning the company from supplying its 5G network entirely, despite the fact that it would in all likelihood reduce outcomes for consumers.
The technical grounds on which Huawei was banned are shaky at best. Just about every "hack" you hear about in the news - they are occurring on far too regular a basis, I might add - usually involves one of two methods. One, the data were stored unencrypted, i.e. in plain text, on a server somewhere; and/or two, access was gained through so-called social hacking, i.e. finding a weak human link in the chain and exploiting them.
From a security perspective the least concerning part of a system is the network infrastructure itself. It's a given these days that routers, 5G nodes and everything in between should be considered insecure. Even if Huawei were planning to install sophisticated, hardware backdoors in its Australia-bound 5G components, just about every threat model out there already takes that as a given. As long as you properly encrypt data at rest and in transit, problem (mostly) solved.
Which leads me to Australia's decision late last year - with the support of the opposition - to rush through anti-encryption legislation that I described at the time as "at best useless and at worst downright dangerous".
Essentially, a country so paranoid about being hacked by foreign entities that it would ban an entire company with no track record of spying decided to weaken the best method of defending against such attacks: encryption. Properly encrypting data in transit means that even if it is intercepted at some point along the way, it won't be of any use.
But Australia's Assistance and Access Bill(AAB) requires companies, on request, to implement backdoors (which the bad guys will eventually also discover), preventing Australian companies from being able to guarantee such a service (the AAB only applies to products used or sold in Australia).
As Apple wrote in its statement submitted to the Australian Parliament's Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on 12 October 2018:
"Encryption is simply math... Any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data for anyone will by extension weaken the protections for everyone."
The motto of the Australian government seems to be if you don't understand something, just ban it.
Don't understand encryption and its importance for millions of people, but worry that a couple of malicious individuals might use it to organise an attack? Just ban it.
Don't understand risk models or how to properly secure communications, but worry about China spying through one of its multinational 5G suppliers? Just ban it.
But weakening encryption creates unintended consequences. As I predicted at the time:
"The Australian technology sector will suffer, but it will be largely unseen. Just the existence of the AAB means clients outside of Australia cannot be sure their data are secure. Australian coders and tech entrepreneurs will increasingly have to move overseas."
Unfortunately, three months since the bill passed it seems I was spot on:
"Hosted email provider FastMail says it has lost customers and faces "regular” requests to shift its operations outside Australia following the passage of anti-encryption laws.
The Victorian company, which offers ad-free email services to users in 150 countries, told a senate committee that the now-passed laws were starting to bite."
Australian companies are losing customers because of the possibility of encryption backdoors, regardless of whether or not that is the case in practice (and we'll never know). No one can be sure which companies have been requested to undermine their clients' data security, so all of them get tarred with the same brush. The AAB has created what economists call an adverse selection problem, the end result of which may be the exit of companies unwilling to weaken their data security practices, or the collapse of related industries entirely.
Thankfully my other predictions haven't come to fruition - yet (although as far as I'm aware no criminal apprehensions as a direct result of the AAB have occurred).
But as the recent hack of Parliament and all of the major parties highlights, uncompromised encryption is as important as ever both at home and at work.
The number of connected devices ("internet of things" or IoT) is only going to grow, and they are going to vary enormously in terms of how secure they are. The more devices, the more opportunities for malicious actors to compromise them. The best way to ensure that data are secure is to encrypt it at rest and in transit, so if there were a compromised device or 5G node somewhere along the chain it wouldn't matter.
If the government were truly worried about Chinese spying, it would encourage more encryption, not less.
But alas the politicians who, during the recent breach of their own servers, were very likely saved by the same encryption technology they just undermined, refuse to notice the potentially devastating unintended consequences of their actions. And why would they? If something bad happens as a result, they can always just ban it.
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