Myths and disinformation

As Mike Burgess, Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate — one of roles that is a direct beneficiary of the Assistance and Access bill — points out “there has been considerable inaccurate commentary on the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018″. His attempt to calm the waters down follows the standard template of declaring everything opponents say to be based on myths; I guess that’s the “it’s all fake news!” defense. Let’s see how accurate that is.

#1: Your information is no longer safe

His first claim is that “if you are using a messaging app for a lawful purpose, the legislation does not affect you”. This isn’t true on two grounds.

The first is that the legislation doesn’t directly target users of messaging apps, but their providers. So if you write a messaging app, and only use it yourself for legal purposes, even in the best case you’re still affected because the police can come and demand you make it so they can spy on other people who may be using it to discuss illegal activities. But the legislation isn’t restricted to “messaging apps”, and the term “messaging” never actually appears in the legislation. The law is actually much broader and covers any “designated communications provider” which, amongst 14 other categories, includes anyone who “develops, supplies or updates software used, for use, or likely to be used in connection with (a) a listed carriage service; or (b) an electronic service that has one or more end-users in Australia”, then going on to note that “For the purposes of this Part, electronic service means .. (b) a service that delivers material to persons having equipment appropriate for receiving that material, […]” and “”For the purposes of subsection (1), service includes a website”. Run a website in Australia that someone else in Australia might look at? The law affects you.

But the second way it’s not true, is that you don’t have to be behaving unlawfully for the government to decide to snoop on your communications, they just have to think you are. That’s just normal policing, of course: you get a warrant to find out what’s going on, then if there really was something illegal, you present a case and get a guilty verdict. Well, that’s if you’re the police: the ASD is more about just getting information, not convicting anyone of an actual crime. As per their website, their mission is to “Inform” through “covertly accessing information not publicly available”, so while they’re also about “supporting military operations, law enforcement and criminal intelligence activity against cyber criminals” I guess it’s understandable they might not be on top of all the finer details of the process that you could pick up from an episode of Law&Order.

#2: Agencies get unfettered power

In any event, there are no protection measures in place against the nominated agencies misuing the new powers: there is no way for the website owners who are required to break the security of their websites (or messaging apps, or other software) to know the reason for the request, it is illegal to even tell others that their has been a request or to imply who the request came from, and even if it does become known, there are no statutory penalties for an agency issuing unsupported notice.

One such way this fails is the claim “Nobody’s personal communications can be accessed under the Act without a warrant”. Perhaps if the website owner being asked to make such changes has good enough legal advice, that might be true; but nowhere in the act does it actually say you have to have a warrant before making these requests. Instead it says something much weaker, such as: “A technical assistance notice or technical capability notice has no effect to the extent (if any) to which it would require a designated communications provider to do an act or thing for which a warrant or authorisation under any of the following laws is required: […]”. Which is actually almost the opposite: if you needed a warrant, the notice has no effect; but if you didn’t need a warrant, you have to comply with it.

#3: The security of the Internet is under threat

Mike writes “By their very nature, security and law enforcement investigations are highly targeted”. This is simply a lie: modern intelligence gathering often follows a “Big Data” approach, where as much data is collected as possible, and is then analysed after the fact. This was documented publicly by the Snowden leaks, and Australia in particular is known to participate in the “PRISM” program of dragnet surveillance at the Internet service provider level. That program has been previously addressed in parliament, with then Senator Xenephon asking if any emails might be excluded from the program, with then Foreign Minister Carr explaining that there were safeguards in place, but not answering the question asked.

Mike also points out the “systemic weakness” defense, but avoids mentioning any of the concerns about the ineffectiveness of that provision that were raised during the public consultation and senate review, or the fact that the proposals to address those flaws were abandoned in the rush to not leak weak on national security over Christmas.

#4: Tech companies will be forced offshore

Companies are already considering whether to offshore. Certainly they aren’t “forced” to do so by the legislation, but they’re certainly encouraged to do so by economic reality. This is simply the expected result of the destruction of trust this bill enabled; the PRISM revelations had a similar effect on compliant companies.

#5: The communications of Australians will be jeopardised

Mike claims the Act has built-in oversight mechanisms. As many of the responses to the public consultation noted, these oversight mechanisms are woefully limited. The act gives IGIS no additional powers over any of the agencies (and they only have power over the spy agencies, not the anti-corruption or police), though it does at least make it legal to inform them about notices. There is, per the IGIS website, no right to make a complaint to IGIS, nor any obligation on IGIS to investigate complaints about the intelligence and security services. The Commonwealth ombudsman does not seem to be mentioned in the Act at all, so it does not seem like it would be legal to even inform them that you have received a notice under the Act, in order to complain about it being illegal.

The problem with this is that oversight of national security agencies is almost impossible: the only way we find out about activities like PRISM that do affect large swathes of Australian citizens, rather than proven threats to national security, is when a disastrous leak occurs; and even when that occurs questions of what was actually going on are dismissed with platitudes that “there are procedures in place”. The public never has the opportunity to review those procedures in detail, of course.

#6: ASD will be able to spy on Australians

I think Mike is claiming this is a myth because, like, ASD cares about foreigners, why would they even want to spy on Australians? Which might be plausible, if we didn’t have a large migrant population, or ASD didn’t have alliances with foreign intelligence agencies that do want to spy on Australians. And maybe it’s true anyway; who knows? Though I notice he qualifies that as “everyday” Australians.

In any event, the question is whether they can, and the Act makes this easy: all they need is to convince one of the other interception agencies to issue the notice, and then communicate the results to them under the carve-out in Division 6 317ZF(3)(d)(ii) which allows the interception agency to pass on any info they obtain “in connection with the performance of functions, or the exercise of powers, by the Australian Signals Directorate”.

#7: The reputation of Australian tech companies will suffer

This is in fact a myth: the reputation of Australian tech companies is already suffering.

It is, at least, nice of Mike to have provided such a convenient list of headlines for why the Act is such a disaster, and why our “intelligence” agencies have been over-influenced by their own self-interest, rather than the national interest. The true danger of the act is not the usual grab-bag of “terrorists, pedophiles and other criminals” but rather law enforcement and security agencies who have to act with little or no public oversight gaining large powers of the remainder of the Commonwealth.

I still admire Mike for the ASD’s “long time listener, first time caller” tweet, but they’ve overreached here and come up with a true disaster of a policy, that should never have made it through Parliament.

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