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Wednesday, 28 November 2018 11:24

National insecurity: Labor bowing to govt on encryption bill

National insecurity: Labor bowing to govt on encryption bill Pixabay

Rather predictably, the Australian Labor Party has signalled to the Federal Government that it will not stand in the way of the encryption bill being passed by Christmas, with the party doing everything but ending the process of inquiry so that the government can have its way.

All it took was that age-old trick, getting the Labor fold into the tent, for a few mystical moments with the spooks, so that the likes of Mark Dreyfus, Jenny McAllister, Penny Wong and Anthony Byrne could all feel like they were part of the elite, privy to the darkest secrets that only ASIO knows. Exactly what they were told will never be known to the public who have to suck up whatever the pollies decide on.

It puzzles the mind no end as to why these Labor members of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security could not hire someone to explain to them, in plain English, the dangers that this bill poses to the average punter. Are all those who made submissions fools to vent at such length about shortcomings in the legislation, if they did not exist?

By the questions they ask, it is plain that the Labor MPs are geared towards politics, and not technology. Yet this bill will hit people on the technology front. To call them an Opposition, when all one witnesses is bowing and scraping, would be intellectually dishonest.

An additional hearing was organised on Monday, solely for the government and its spook agencies, plus Home Affairs, to ramp up the scaremongering and threaten that doomsday would arrive if the bill was not passed in the next couple of weeks.

Yet, when asked, Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO, the spy agency that has yet to nab a single spy, had to admit that there was no specific threat on the radar of his agency. All the wisdom he could offer was that Christmas is a time when the threat is generally high.

Asked why the country's threat level could not be raised, he again was forced to admit that to do that, ASIO would have to have knowledge of a specific threat.

Some of the talk that went on during Monday's hearing was laughable. You had Senator Jim Molan asserting that, despite the public and media calling the legislation an encryption bill, it actually had nothing to do with encryption! No, insisted the former army man, it was about "access" and "assistance".

So when others — like the AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin and Lewis — used the term "going dark", what were they talking about? The sunset? Thankfully, Senator Molan will not be a part of any future parliaments to offer such pearls of wisdom.

Colvin, too, tried a bit of spin, attempting to slip in the assertion that the bill did not confer any new powers on the security agencies. But this was too much for even the normally very proper Dreyfus who took Colvin to task and made him go through the bill's new powers line by line like a schoolboy being made to do dictation.

On Tuesday, there was a little more reality about the hearing, with the Inspector-General of Security Margaret Stone, the Deputy Commonwealth Ombudsman Jaala Hinchcliffe and UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Professor Joseph Cannataci, appearing.

The most forthright of the lot was Prof Cannataci, who pulled no punches, describing the bill as basically a waste of time. And when he was challenged by both the PJCIS chair Andrew Hastie and the old warhorse, Senator Eric Abetz, Prof Cannataci showed that he was enough of a wordsmith to beat back somewhat sarcastic queries with what could well be described as a flowing cover-drive.

Dreyfus signalled to the government reps on the panel that he would be willing to split the bill and allow schedule one, the bit that gives all these new powers to the spooks, to be passed immediately, if it was only available to counter-terror agencies. With that, the remaining hearings have become non-events.

The Coalition Government has already given the Australian public one great technological disaster: the national broadband network, which is better described as fraudband. Now it will slam another brake on any technological future the country has with its encryption bill. Oops, sorry, it's not about encryption at all, is it Jim?

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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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