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Australian government wants its own definition of what ‘backdoor’ means

When the good guys use backdoors, they’re not backdoors, understand?


Malcolm Turnbull “There should be no ungoverned space on the Internet. 

Australia’s federal government has shifted its ground on the encryption debate, and is now working to hem in the debate by constraining the definition of “backdoor”.

The technologist’s understanding is that anything that compromises encryption represents a “backdoor” of some kind, from NSA-style bug-hoarding to key escrow to cryptographers planting “magic keys” in an application (which somehow, improbably, manage to remain secret).

The Australian government’s idea is that if it describes “backdoors” only in terms of NSA hacks or deliberately planned weaknesses, it can convince everyone that it’s not looking for backdoors.

If you have 15 minutes to spare, for example, this interview between Radio National’s Jonathan Green and the prime minister’s cyber-security advisor Alastair MacGibbon is informative. MacGibbon does an excellent job of explaining the government’s objective in the debate – that Australians should expect to be governed by the same laws whether their actions are online or offline.

However, he repeatedly trips up in explaining why the government isn’t seeking some kind of “backdoor” – because every “not-a-backdoor” example described some kind of backdoor.

For example, he told Green: “When it comes to encrypted communications, those people who manufacture the device, or who manufacture the software, will have a greater idea about how to gain access to information from that software or from that hardware than you or I might have, because they’re the ones that manufacture it.

“If you were the person that created and marketed a particular safe to the public – I would have great difficulty getting into the safe, but the manufacturer might be able to say ‘look, we don’t telegraph this, and you don’t need to know, police officer, how to get in there, but I might be able to help you get in there’.”

Apple or WhatsApp or Signal might know how to crack encrypted communications because they made the device or the software. Just don’t call that a backdoor, because the government says it’s not.

MacGibbon then discussed the fact that vendors are constantly pushing software updates to smartphones or laptops. “That means that the company knows that there are vulnerabilities, or there are things that aren’t functioning properly that need to be updated. Why can’t government go to those companies and say ‘look, we’re not asking you to do anything special, we’re not asking you to hard-wire in a vulnerability, a backdoor’.”

He just wants businesses to help governments exploit vulnerabilities they know about. “But if you know that there’s a way you could help us, and this phone was in the hands of a terrorist, and we’re now in lawful possession of that device, could you help us?”

But it’s not a backdoor.

Turnbull’s backdoor harmony

With that position worked out in Canberra, it’s no surprise that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is practising the same semantic hair-splitting in his public statements. Ahead of this week’s G20 summit, he spoke to the ABC, starting from the same premise as MacGibbon, that the rule of law “must prevail in the cyber world”.

Encryption prevents that: Internet-based messaging services are “increasingly encrypted end-to-end. Not only are they unable to be decrypted in transit, but the operator of the service is unable to decrypt them”.

Just as police can get a warrant to open a filing cabinet, “so access should be able to be had” to encrypted messages. “We have the ability to seek an order … but of course, it doesn’t help you if you can’t get the communications decrypted”, he said, adding that “The decrypt has to be available from the company”.

He followed up in Hamburg by saying, “There should be no ungoverned space on the Internet. We need more assistance to ensure that higher and higher levels of encryption are not being used to conceal terrorists and criminals.”

But it’s not a backdoor.

It doesn’t work like that

It seems to Vulture South that the semantic quibbling is pitched to people who don’t quite understand what the fuss about – that is, most people, because encryption is such a complex thing to explain.

“Backdoors” are what the NSA does – all the government wants is to have encryption broken under due process, and encryption is somehow special to messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Signal or Telegram. In other words: Citizen Bloggs probably doesn’t know that messaging apps and platforms like Facebook or Twitter or Google use the same end-to-end encryption that protects Internet banking.

Citizen Bloggs also doesn’t understand that the phone or laptop manufacturer didn’t write the SSL/TLS implementation that puts “HTTPS” at the start of a URL – and a compromise to SSL/TLS is a compromise to everything that uses it.

Why should citizens need to know? Developers have spent more than two decades making encryption accessible to everyone to protect them from malice.

The government can’t get around this by imposing its own definition of “backdoor”. ®


11 thoughts on “Australian government wants its own definition of what ‘backdoor’ means

  1. Examples:
    PIN numbers.
    My mobile phone
    My bank accounts
    My computer
    Did Our Malcolm say this before or after the G20 meet in Europe.
    Did you see the group photo ?
    Our Malcolm is standing behind The Most Powerful Woman In The World Chancellor Angela Merkel.
    It looks like a group photo of the residents of a Retirement Village.

  2. Paranoia has set in – The Establishment is afwaid we will get the better of them –
    * are their days numbered ?
    * are there those among us that are plotting to pull the carpet out from underneath them ?
    * to take away their little world ?

    1. Is “The Establishment” even in this country?
      Does “The Establishment” have any consideration for anything living in this country?
      How long is it since this country was a nation?
      If you know their name and can identify them, are they “The Establishment”?

      1. Hi JAGG:
        We The People of This Fair Land, Australia, are the heart & soul of this beloved nation we call HOME & we are alive & still kicking.

        The Establishment are the Bad Guy’s …………….. look around & there they are hiding behind something or other.

        John Wayne cowboy quotes:
        This is us – we the people.
        “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
        “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life.”

        And this is them – the establishment.
        ” You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”
        “A man deserves a second chance – but keep an eye on him.”
        Varmints one & all.

      2. Darkmoon – article title – German police raid Holocaust revisionist’s house on orders of powerful Jewish organisation. by Alfred Schaefer.

        What really happened in Germany during WWII, that German & Jewish Interests are so freaked out ?
        Even Blind Feddy can smell a dead rat here.

      3. I heard Our Malcolm Turnbull on the radio today – my, my, my, what a tizz he was in. Insisting that encryption was the way to for the TERRORIST the PEDOPHILE & I can’rt remember who else – the way these degenerates were evading & eluding the authority.
        Encryption: – is a process of converting information or data into code – especially to prevent unauthorized access.

        It is far easier to hide a file in separate space under a deceptive category such as “operating system files” & secure it with a pin.
        Encryption is a method that has instructions which can be read by anyone who knows how.
        Encryption is BULLSHIT – but it sounds good – a great word to use to make yourself look important & busy in the process of the job you get handsomely paid for – one must be seen to be doing things.

  3. Do we still believe in a two party democracy? Look at Liberalism everywhere else in the world other than Australia.
    There are eight levels of control that must be obtained before you are able to create a socialist state. The first is the most important
    1. Healthcare – Control healthcare and you control the people.
    2. Poverty – Increase the Poverty level as high as possible poor people are easier to control and will not fight back if you are providing everything for them to live.
    3. Debt – Increase the debt to an unstainable level. That way you are able to increase taxes, and this will produce more poverty.
    4. Gun Control – Remove people’s ability to defend themselves from the Government. That way you are able to create a police state.
    5. Welfare – Take control of every aspect of their lives (Food, Housing and Income)
    6. Education – Take control of what people read and listen to – take control of what children learn at school. Think; “Common Core”
    7. Religion – Remove the belief in God from the Government and schools
    8. Class Warfare – Divide the people into the wealthy and the poor. This will cause more discontent and it will be easier to take (Tax) the wealthy with the support of the poor.

    1. The Sad Saga of We The People & The Establishment:

      “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
      To talk of may things:
      Of shoes – & ships – & sealing wax –
      Of Cabbages – & kings –
      And why the sea is boiling hot –
      And weather pigs have wings.”

      “But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
      For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!”
      “No hurry,” said the Carpenter.
      They thanked him much for that.

      “A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
      Is what we chiefly need:
      Pepper & vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed –
      Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed.”

      “O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
      You’ve had a pleasant run!
      Shall we be trotting home again?”
      But answers came there none –
      And this was scarcely odd, because
      They’d eaten every one.

      Everyone wants a new tomorrow – can you see us & – the excuse – for our current political protagonists – walking hand in hand into the sunset together ?
      Joe Hildebrand is right – we need a new party- in fact – out with the old & in with the new – we need two new party’s.

    2. “4. Gun Control – removes peoples ability to defend themselves from the government”

      1. Are Guns the only way a people can defend themselves against a government ?
      Or …..
      2. Are they the old way / out dated way a people might seek to fight a government !
      3. How easy is it to defeat a government ?
      4. You pick them off 1 by 1 & as a collective / the party – by undermining – globally – their capacities to function.
      Gossip / rumor / innuendo & social media can be so cruel.
      This is why they worship & subsidize & support Main Stream Media – eg., the ABC. The ABC network is not for us – but against us.

      Jagg – if it were said of you that you were – dishonest – untrustworthy – broke – a gold digger – a con man – a philanderer ….. the rumors would ruin you eventually.
      Today – we are main stream media – only that most people do not realize the power we wield.

  4. Has anyone here heard of the Australian Sovereignty Party? They seem to genuinely care about Australia and giving us back our lost without a fight rights.

    1. The Australian Sovereignty Party was registered on 2nd July 2013 & deregistered on 30th July 2015.
      Reason: s. 137(6) failure to demonstrate requisite 500 members to maintain registration.
      Sorry –

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