Australia wields vast decryption powers before planned review

Updated 08 February 2019
0

Australia wields vast decryption powers before planned review

CANBERRA: Australian security agencies have begun using sweeping new powers to access encrypted communications, even before a promised review to address concerns from the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook.
The powers were granted under a new decryption law which was rushed through parliament in December amid fierce debate, and was seen as the latest salvo between governments and tech firms over national security and privacy.
Two months later, the Australian Federal Police have revealed that agents have already used it while investigating drug trafficking and child exploitation.
Under the fresh rules, refusal to grant authorities access to devices is punishable with up to 10 years in prison, and police told a parliamentary inquiry they had used that threat to compel two suspects to hand over their passwords.
Citing secrecy provisions in the law, police declined to say if they had used the new law to force device makers or telecommunications firms — including global giants like Apple — to break or bypass encrypted communications.
The same provisions bar industry from disclosing whether they have received such police demands, known as “compulsory notices.”
The government has argued the law was urgently needed to foil ongoing terrorist plots and intercept communications among other serious criminals.
But opponents allege it punches a hole in global efforts to keep governments from eavesdropping on secure communications, like WhatsApp chats.
They also argue it could undermine security by creating vulnerabilities in encryption technologies, which could then be exploited by malicious actors.

‘Enormous threat’
The legislation was adopted only after the conservative government agreed to reopen debate in the new year on amendments that would address widespread concerns among civil liberties advocates and tech industry experts that it was ill-conceived and too broad.
The Department of Home Affairs says the law is being progressively implemented and that in January it wrote to tech industry members for assistance in drawing up guidelines on how to use the new powers.
“The Department is also engaging with industry to dispel common misconception, build confidence and to reiterate the intended purpose and operation of the Act,” it said in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry.
But the tech industry appears far from reassured.
“There is no doubt there is an extremely broad coalition of stakeholders that are very concerned about the impact of this bill,” said John Stanton, chief executive of the Communications Alliance, which represents the Australian communications industry.
“It is not just industry, it is civil society and digital rights activists (too).”
Stanton warned the new law posed “an enormous threat” to export opportunities for Australian tech firms “because they can no longer provide any assurance that their gear hasn’t been tampered with by Australian security.”
“Even to say, ‘no, it hasn’t’, is an offense” under the law,” he added.
Industry groups have combined forces to present a joint submission to the latest inquiry proposing a series of amendments.
These include a higher threshold for using the law, which can currently be applied in any investigation of an offense carrying a maximum three-year jail term — a bar critics say is too low.
The industry also wants more precision about an element of the law barring authorities from forcing companies to introduce a “system vulnerability” into their products — a term they say is ambiguous.
Australia is widely seen as a global test case for such laws, with possible applications by other governments seeking to counter the growing use of encrypted messaging, notably Australia’s partners in the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance — the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
The ongoing review of these powers by parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security may have set an Australian political record.
It was launched just nine days after the encryption legislation became law and reflects the haste with which it was rammed through.
The committee must complete its review by April 3, but any moves to then amend the legislation risk running up against the Australian electoral cycle, with a federal election due by mid-May.


Russia’s Port of Vladivostok prepares to host Kim Jong Un

Updated 19 April 2019
0

Russia’s Port of Vladivostok prepares to host Kim Jong Un

  • Russian media were quick to report preparations were underway for the summit to take place in Vladivostok
  • Proximity is no doubt important for Kim, who is rumored to travel aboard his armored train

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected in Russia’s far-eastern port Vladivostok in the coming days, according to reports that have prompted excitement and concern among local residents.
After weeks of speculation, the Kremlin announced that Kim will visit Russia to hold his first talks with President Vladimir Putin in late April. It gave no details on a date or place, citing “security reasons.”
Russian media were quick to report preparations were underway for the summit to take place in Vladivostok, home to Moscow’s Pacific Fleet.
The port lies only about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Russia’s short border with North Korea. This proximity is no doubt important for Kim, who is rumored to travel aboard his armored train.
The 35-year-old will be following in the footsteps of his father Kim Jong Il, who met the newly elected Putin in Vladivostok in 2002.
The far eastern city rarely sees major international events, and some locals are happy for the city to be in the spotlight.
“Any visit is good, whether it’s an enemy or a friend,” said Danil, a student at Vladivostok’s Far Eastern Federal University, billed by the media as a possible venue for the summit.
He welcomed the talks, saying “you can only make decisions through dialogue and communication.”
Nadezhda, a native of the city, said it will be a global event and “will be a boost for development in our city.”
Authorities this week were busy cleaning garbage near railways leading to the city, Russian media reported.
“The depressing view from the train window does not give a positive impression to guests of Vladivostok arriving by train,” an official from the local branch of Russian Railways told the Interfax news agency.
Nadezhda said she was “absolutely not afraid of (North Korea’s) nuclear program” and would like to see the country.
North Korea said this week it was testing nuclear weapons after a round of talks with the US ended in failure.
But Anna Marinina was less enthusiastic about the summit, and said that if Pyongyang did use its weapons, Vladivostok would be in the firing line.
“The people that panic the most about North Korea are safe on the other side of the ocean,” she said.
“If something were to happen, it would fall on us.”
Putin has long said he was ready to meet with Kim and is preparing to play a bigger role in nuclear negotiations with Moscow’s Cold War-era ally.
The last meeting between Russian and North Korean heads of state was in 2011, when Kim’s father traveled by train to Siberia, where he took a boat ride on Lake Baikal and held tightly guarded talks with then president Dmitry Medvedev.
There is a chance however that fresh talks will not take place at all, as Kim pulled out of 2015 celebrations in Moscow for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II at the last minute.