Home Government Tech Policy Encryption bill: 'systemic weakness' eludes definition
Encryption bill: 'systemic weakness' eludes definition Pixabay Featured

The Federal Government is yet to properly define in its encryption bill what a systemic weakness means, and the question came up more than once for discussion during the second hearing on the bill before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence.

Labor Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus raised the question of a definition with Dr Vanessa Teague, a researcher from Melbourne University, who was appearing before the panel in an individual capacity, along with her colleague, Dr Chris Culnane, in Sydney on Friday.

Dr Teague was more inclined to follow the definition handed out by the head of the Australian Signals Directorate, Mike Burgess, during the committee's first hearing on the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 on 19 October.

Burgess had said: "A systemic weakness is one that would be available to everyone. It would be one thing to ask for assistance to get access to something, but the action undertaken to provide that in that targeted case might actually jeopardise the information of other people as a result of that action being taken."

Dr Teague said the definition floated by Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo was much narrower. "...'systemic' intrinsically means 'pertaining to the whole system'. It is something that operates at the level of the system," was his take, again made on 19 October.

The draft bill says that "A technical assistance notice or technical capability notice must not have the effect of:

"(a) requiring a designated communications provider to implement or build a systemic weakness, or a systemic vulnerability, into a form of electronic protection; or

"(b) preventing a designated communications provider from rectifying a systemic weakness, or a systemic vulnerability, in a form of electronic protection."

Dreyfus also raised the issue of whether the encryption bill, if passed in its current form, would get in the way of Australia being able to negotiate a deal with the US under its Cloud Act.

The Cloud Act, passed in March, has changed US law so that law-enforcement warrants apply to data stored anywhere in the world by US-based tech firms. But the companies have the right to challenge warrants in court, based on privacy laws in the specific country where the data is stored.

Neither Daniel Weitzner, who appeared on behalf of the Internet Policy research Initiative of the Masschusetts Institute of Technology, nor American cryptography fellow Riana Pfefferkorn were able to provide a clear answer to that one.

Weitzner pointed out that secrecy provisions of the bill created a new class of security risk. It would result in situations where service providers would have to lie about the quality of the service they were providing, he said.

He also stressed the fact that it was only openness and transparency that would lead to any vulnerabilities in code being discovered. Introducing vulnerabilities in order to compromise an individual or a group and then keeping it secret would probably end up with the vulnerability being discovered anyway and used by the so-called bad guys.

Margaret Stone, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe and Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow also appeared before the panel during the morning session.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the sitecame 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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