It's been a pressing theme for Australian authorities since September 11: certain spaces of communication are to be questioned and controlled. Despite amassing a set of rules and regulations that make Australia a leader (in a dubious sense) in accessing communications, the Turnbull government wishes for more.
The attitude of Prime Minister Turnbull echoes the fear all autocracies have: that control is slipping away, and that citizens cannot be trusted to behave in a modern communications environment without government intrusions that compel technology companies to surrender encrypted communications, if necessary.
'We cannot allow the internet to be used as a place for terrorists and child molesters and people who peddle child pornography, and drug traffickers to hide in the dark.' Accordingly, 'The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia.'
It is worth noting Australia's incremental and increasingly police-styled efforts to tighten the way information is exchanged within the modern security environment. The rationale behind these rules is that citizens must be watched. That such measures are more pernicious than useful is rarely discussed.
Australia's security state is heavily stacked with options. There is legislation that potentially targets journalists for revealing material on Secret Intelligence Operations. There is legislation criminalising the disclosure of information on detention centres by entrusted persons, with few exemptions.
There are data retention laws, based on a dubious understanding of technology, obligating telecommunications companies to retain certain data for at least two years. This has been deemed by the European Union as unwarranted intrusions into the privacy of citizens.
None of this is enough. The Turnbull government wishes to enter what many defenders of net neutrality and freedom would consider untenable: a world of decryption, co-opting the very technology giants that are against it. Effectively, companies such as Facebook and Twitter are being given the tap to suggest ways of overriding their encryption protections. It is a point the prime minister has been threatening for weeks, taking each terrorist outrage as a justification for another legislative drive.
Attorney-General George Brandis has also made the point that he is no fan of encryption technologies, describing them as the 'greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability' in a lifetime. Indeed, the Turnbull government has been taking the wheels on the subject, with Brandis claiming in June that Australia would be leading discussions on how best to foil encryption efforts behind potential terrorist attacks at the Five Eyes discussions in Ottawa.
"Such police measures, once introduced, create a culture of surveillance that does not merely gnaw away at the sinews of freedom, but also censors and limits the communications of citizens."
A vital principle behind why individuals use such services lies in the confidence it gives them. It goes without saying that some who do so will have nefarious purposes. But most will not, engaging in online activity (banking, orders, purchases, bookings) they hope is safe from hacking, theft and fraud.
The reasoning behind expanding already extensive intercept and gathering powers by ASIO and Australia's law enforcement bodies ignores the necessary effectiveness such actions will have. As Australian Greens Co-Deputy Leader Scott Ludlam explained last month, 'Spying on more people can't help, particularly when the perpetrators are already known to authorities — as they were in Melbourne, in London, in Sydney.' The haystack is expanded, while the number of needles remains.
Such arguments never change: that the teeth of law enforcement need sharpening to keep abreast of technology. The only way to do it, supposedly, is by passing more intrusive legislation. With little surprise, and with much envy, the Turnbull government has been eyeing Britain's Investigatory Powers Act, which passed in November last year. That it was promulgated under a May government is not surprising. British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has never shed the worn skin of secretary of the Home Office, a time which saw her recommend some of the most intrusive surveillance measures in British history.
The IPA, which authorises hacking and access to data of individuals irrespective of whether they are suspected of wrongdoing, remains the crown jewel of that effort. In Edward Snowden's words, it constitutes 'the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.'
The final point to emphasise is effect. Arguments are repeatedly made that such enlarged powers are never abused — a charmingly naïve assumption — and that law enforcement authorities merely need the 'capacity' to have them. These can either abate, or be extended, after a review.
The reality tends to be different. Such police measures, once introduced, create a culture of surveillance that does not merely gnaw away at the sinews of freedom, but also censors and limits the communications of citizens. But the introduction of weakness into the encryption edifice will maximise, not minimise, the prospect for crime to take place in Turnbull's 'ungovernable space'. Those specialising in malware and hacking tools will rejoice.
Dr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.