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Thursday, 25 April 2024 16:32

Guardian scribe Karp punctures the encryption bubble at the NPC Featured

Paul Karp, chief political correspondent at Guardian Australia. Paul Karp, chief political correspondent at Guardian Australia. Courtesy Guardian Australia

It took just one question from Paul Karp, chief political correspondent at Guardian Australia, to put the brakes on at the National Press Club on Wednesday, during a Q&A for two top Australian security officials.

ASIO chief Mike Burgess and AFP head Reece Kershaw were answering queries when Karp came to the mike. He had a simple question about encryption: given that all requests [a total of 66] for breaking encryption in the financial year 2023 had been voluntarily complied with, where was the need for any further tightening of regulations?

This appeared to faze both Burgess and Kershaw. Karp's data sheet showed that there had been no requests for technical assistance notices or technical capability notices in the financial year 2023.

Karp's reference was to the encryption laws passed in December 2018, with then Labor leader Bill Shorten being wedged by the Coalition to pass the laws in full without any delay. Shorten was spooked by the claim that there just might be a terrorist act during the remainder of the month.

Let me recap for anyone who has been wondering what this is all about. Neither Burgess nor Kershaw was scheduled to speak at the NPC on Wednesday; the original schedule for the week only listed Wally Lewis, rugby league legend and Dementia Australia Ambassador, who was slated to speak on Tuesday. I check the schedule every week so as to catch any worthwhile talks.

The Burgess-Kershaw double act on Wednesday surfaced in the wake of the stoush between the eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant and X owner Elon Musk, with the latter refusing to take down videos of a recent stabbing incident in Sydney.

Neither Burgess nor Kershaw had anything to say that was new; the joint talk appeared to have been staged just for the two men to indicate to Musk that there were stronger measures that Australia could take unless he refused to play ball.

It reminded me of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; at one stage both Tom and Huck Finn claim to have older brothers who can knock each other out. Both brothers were fictitious.

The texts of both Burgess' and Kershaw's talks were sent to the mainstream media in advance and every publication had gone heavy on encryption in the headline. It was puzzling to me, as I was wondering what else the government wanted beyond the 2018 laws.

Under these laws, companies will be initially requested to co-operate with law enforcement; if they do not, the pressure will be stepped up to force them to help.

First, there will be a technical assistance request that allows voluntary help by a company. The staff of the company will be given civil immunity from prosecution.

Next, an interception agency can issue a technical assistance notice or TAN to make a communications provider offer assistance.

Finally, a technical capability notice or TCN can be issued by the Attorney-General at the request of an interception agency. This will have to be also approved by the Communications Minister and will force a company to help law enforcement, by building functionality.

However a TCN cannot demand the decryption of information or removal of electronic protection in any system.

During his speech, Burgess made it plain that he was not asking for any further powers around encryption, but merely seeking what he called co-operation from tech companies. Given that no tech firm apart from X has proved recalcitrant in the recent past, it was apparent that Burgess was just using Godfather tactics to communicate a message to Musk.

Karp's statistics resulted in Kershaw fumbling a bit and saying that the zeros in both the second and third categories would be doubled soon. That resulted in some mirth, as doubling a zero would not result in anything greater than zero.

But the purpose of the double-act was served; Burgess and Kershaw would have gone home satisfied. Though they would have been happier had not Karp had his wits about him.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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