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Australia’s spies and cops want ‘accountable encryption’ – aka access to backdoors

The director general of Australia’s lead intelligence agency and the commissioner of its Federal Police yesterday both called for social networks to offer more assistance to help their investigators work on cases involving terrorism, child exploitation, and racist nationalism.

The two bosses yesterday appeared together at Australia’s National Press Club.

First to the lectern was Mike Burgess, director general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, who opened by saying “The internet is a transformative information source… and the world’s most potent incubator of extremism.”

As he outlined an argument that a dynamic tension exists between security and technology, Burgess added “encryption protects our privacy and enables our economy…and creates safe spaces for violent extremists to operate, network and recruit.”

Burgess labelled encryption “clearly a good thing, a positive for our democracy and our economy” because it “protects privacy, it enables communications and transactions.”

But he noted it also provides criminals with anonymity, which is why Australia has laws that make it possible to access encrypted messages. Burgess said those laws aren’t working well because tech companies aren’t helping.

“But even when the warrant allows us to lawfully intercept an encrypted communication, we cannot actually read it without the assistance of the company that owns and operates the app,” he said. “The company has to be willing and able to give effect to our warrant.”

The spy boss made it clear he doesn’t want more powers, or an end to end-to-end encryption.

“I am asking the tech companies to do more. I’m asking them to give effect to the existing powers and to uphold existing laws,” he said.

“Without their help in very limited and strictly controlled circumstances, encryption is unaccountable,” Burgess argued. “In effect, unaccountable encryption is like building a safe room for terrorists and spies, a secure place where they can plot and plan.”

He argued the case for “accountable encryption” by telling the story of a recent operation involving an Australian who shared extremist content online and was suspected of having contacted terrorists to discuss plans for a violent act. Burgess said that after a “difficult, dangerous, time-consuming and resource-intensive” operation that involved “surveillance, human intelligence and other capabilities,” ASIO determined the individual “possessed the intent and capability to conduct an attack.”

The spy boss argued that accountable encryption would have meant ASIO could more quickly and easily reached that conclusion.

“Quick and targeted access to his communications could have been the difference between life and death,” Burgess argued.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Reece Kershaw spoke next and cited the April 21 statement made by 32 European police chiefs in which they expressed “deep concern that end-to-end encryption is being rolled out in a way that undermines their ability to investigate crime and keep the public safe.”

Kershaw backed that sentiment and, like his European colleagues, framed it in the context of investigations into child exploitation.

“If a judicial officer decides there is reasonable suspicion that a serious crime has been committed, and it is necessary for law enforcement to access information to investigate that serious crime, tech companies should respect the rule of law and the order of a court, or independent judicial authority, and provide that information,” Kershaw said.

“My door is open to all relevant tech CEOs and chairmen, including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,” the police boss said. “I know we can find common ground because, put simply, tech is supposed to make our lives easier and safer, and not the opposite.”

Or maybe that common ground will be hard to find given that Elon Musk is currently arguing against an Australian law that requires the takedown of a video depicting an act of terror. Several associates of the alleged offender depicted in that video were arrested on Wednesday as it was felt they share a violent ideology and therefore represent an unacceptable risk to the Australian community.

The Phantom Menace

ASIO boss Burgess also discussed AI, a technology he said is “ equal parts hype, opportunity, and threat”

“Hype because there’s a yawning chasm between current reality and what’s being claimed by tech-evangelists and marketing gurus. A lot of what they call AI isn’t,” Burgess said, before predicting AI presents an opportunity to “deliver dividends to every part of society, from the economy to health care.”

But he lamented that AI can also improve the productivity of “those who could use it to threaten Australia’s security” and said some nasty people are already using AI for evil.

“We are aware of offshore extremists already asking a commercially available AI program for advice on building weapons and attack planning,” Burgess said. “If the programs refuse to provide the requested information, the extremists try to bypass the ethical handbrakes.”

Burgess also predicted “AI is likely to make radicalization easier and faster”, and “will increase the volume of espionage” as it gives nation-states a good reason “to harvest personal data to assist their own programming and more motivated to steal information about rival AI technologies.”

He’s also braced for “more prolific, more credible and more effective disinformation campaigns” conducted by foreign intelligence services.

ASIO, he said, will fight AI with AI, because that’s “the most obvious and possibly best defense.” Burgess confirmed “ASIO’s been using artificial intelligence for a number of years now.”

“It is not replacing our people – it is augmenting and assisting them,” he said, by making it easier for ASIO staff to sift information.

“Finding a critical piece of intelligence is less like looking for a needle in a haystack than looking for a needle in a field of haystacks,” he said. “AI makes that process easier and faster; it can identify worrying patterns and relationships in minutes and hours rather than weeks and months.”

But only if the data it’s working on isn’t encrypted. ®