Cryptography vs. bigotry: The debate Australia needs to have

And with Pauline Hanson on the stage, it's a debate the technology industry must lead

Australia's newly-elected senator Pauline Hanson has called for a ban on muslim immigration on national security grounds. But her position is ignorant and bigoted because it takes an idea to turn someone to terror and it's now impossible to stop the flow of ideas.

Once Hanson realises that stopping immigration won't of itself reduce the likelihood of terror attacks, the logical next step will be attempts to censor the internet in an utterly futile attempt to stop “dangerous” ideas reaching Australia.

Once calls for wide-scale censorship are rightly rebuffed, Hanson will note US and UK debates in which it's been decreed that It's Probably Time To Do Something About Encryption. There's every chance she'll try to make that cause her own.

If Hanson holds true to form, she will do so in complete ignorance of encryption's role in securing everyday life and without considering personal privacy. There's no chance she'll learn anything of the tradecraft employed by those who wish to communicate in secret or consider how any curb on encryption will lead to their revival.

The lack of substance won't matter because merely connecting encryption with terrorism will mean the genie exits the bottle. Breakfast television and talkback radio hosts will muddle things up, as always, and seed the notion that terrorists are employing technology for evil. They'll ask why the Apples, Googles and Facebooks of the world make it so easy for radicals to promote their poison.

The leaders of those companies' Australian presences, who are mostly just mid-level sales managers, will be asked why they provide a platform that makes it possible for radicals to discuss atrocities without scrutiny. They will protect their own patches and fail to grasp or address the need for balance between personal privacy and national security.

Unease will grow in the community: parents will be encouraged to wonder if their kids are really SnapChatting innocently, or being radicalised in un-crackable code.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be forced to defend his own use of encrypted chat service Wickr (fair enough on historical grounds as all communications between government members should surely be archived for posterity and conducted over known safe channels) and grudgingly admit it might be worth considering other ways of staying in touch with colleagues.

If we're lucky the resulting panic will produce a repeat on the notional ban on accessing online casinos from within Australia, futile legislation that's never been enforced.

More likely by far is a debate on encryption in which fear rules. The response will therefore be some kind of blocking and/or extended data collection regime, complete with weak oversight, unreasonable imposts on industry and the entirely-foreseeable side effect of forcing villains to skill up to avoid a law enforcement effort whose dimensions are now well-described.

Which brings me to Australia's technology industries. Collectively, they have time and again proved themselves feeble contributors to national debate, unable to exert influence. By the time talkback radio is roiling, their voices won't be heard and we'll head down the road of a panicked legislative response.

What to do?

If ever there was a moment for Australia's technology industries to make their voice heard effectively, this is that moment.

All our local industry bodies can see encryption debates blooming in the United States and Europe. They should start one of our own before someone else sets the local scene. The technology industry needs to make plain to users that they need skin in the game, so that the counter-argument doesn't just come from angry geeks. Banks, supermarkets, artists, educators and athletes need to onside, not just StartupLand and the usual techno-boosters.

This needs to happen now, before Hanson starts to worry about encryption.

For those of us in the technology sector, we need to make sure our role as informal tech advisers give us the chance to explain the importance of privacy technology and why it is not to be feared. And why bigotry must be fought in all its forms and with all the tools it uses to spread its hateful message. ®


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