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Last week, Australia’s Assistance and Access (A&A) anti-encryption law was passed through Parliament, which allows Australian police and government the powers to issue technical notices.

The Assistance and Access (A&A) law requires tech companies to help law enforcement agencies break into individuals’ encrypted data. Using secret warrants, the government can even compel a company to serve malware remotely to the target’s device.

The Labor party, which planned to amend the legislation, later pulled its amendments in the Senate and the bill was passed even though it was found to be flawed by the Labour community.

The Australian Human Rights Commission wrote to Parliament, “The definition of ‘acts or things’ in the Bill is so vague as to potentially permit almost limitless forms of assistance”. Several lawmakers look set to reject the bill, criticizing the government’s efforts to rush through the bill before the holiday.

The anti-encryption bill has been slammed by many. Protonmail, a Swiss-based end-to-end email encryption company has also condemned the new law in their blog post and said that they will remain committed to protecting their users anywhere in the world, including in Australia.

Protonmail against the Assistance and Access (A&A) law

Although ProtonMail has data centers only in Switzerland and is not under Australian jurisdiction, any request for assistance from Australian agencies under the A&A law would need to pass the scrutiny of Switzerland’s criminal procedure and data protection laws.

According to ProtonMail, “just because this particular law does not affect ProtonMail and ProtonVPN does not mean we are indifferent. A&A is one of the most significant attacks on digital security and privacy since the NSA’s PRISM program. But the Australian measure is more brazen, hastily forced through Parliament over the loud objections of every sector of society, from businesses to lawyers groups.”

In a letter to the Parliament, the Australian Computer Society, a trade association for IT professionals, outlined several problems in the law, including:

  • Not every company has the technical know-how to safely implement malware that won’t accidentally backdoor the entire product (particularly with IoT devices), putting the security of people’s homes and organizations at risk.
  • Businesses can’t easily plan or budget for possible covert surveillance work with the government.
  • A companion “explanatory document” outlines some safeguards to protect civil rights and privacy that don’t actually appear in the law itself.
  • Once police have gained access to a suspect’s device, they could easily remove evidence from the device that could prove the person’s innocence. There would be no way to know.

These are just a few of the issues, and that’s barely scratching the surface. According to ProtonMail, “the widespread use of encryption can actually further governments’ national security goals. It is critical that we strike the right balance. In our opinion, the A&A law does not do this, and in the long run, will make us all less safe.”

To know more about this in detail, visit ProtonMail ‘s official blog post.

The tech community also oppose the Australian bill in an open letter

The Tech community also wrote an open letter titled, “You bunch of Idiots!” to Bill Shorten and the Australian Labor from the tech community. They mention, “Every tech expert agrees that the so-called “Assistance and Access Bill” will do significant damage to Australia’s IT industry.”
The letter highlights three key points including:

The community members state that the law weakens security for users. “We do not want to deliberately build backdoors or make our products insecure. This means everyone else’s data will be vulnerable. People have an expectation that we protect their personal data to the best of our ability. We cannot continue to guarantee this unless we go against the technical capability notices issued by law enforcement – which will become a criminal offence”, according to the letter.

They also said, “You have made it harder for international companies to hire Australian talent, or have offices in Australia filled with Australian talent. Companies such as Amazon, Apple, Atlassian, Microsoft, Slack, Zendesk and others now have to view their Australian staff and teams as “potentially compromised”. This is because law enforcement can force a person to build a backdoor and they cannot tell their bosses. They might sack them and leave Australia because of the law you just passed.”

“You have also just made it almost impossible to export Australian tech services because no-one wants a potentially vulnerable system that might contain a backdoor. Who in their right mind will buy a product like that? Look at the stock price of one of Australia’s largest tech companies, Atlassian. It’s down because of what you have voted for. In addition, because it violates the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), you have just locked Australian companies and startups out of a huge market.”

The tech communities strongly opposed the bill calling it a destructive and short-sighted law. They said, “In all good conscience, we can no longer support Labor. We will be advocating for people to choose those who protect digital rights.”

The ‘blackout’ move on GitHub to block Australia for everyone’s safety

Many Australian users suggested that the world block Australia for everyone’s safety, after the Australian Assistance and Access Bill was passed. Following this, users have created a repository on GitHub to provide easy-to-use solutions to blackout Australia, in solidarity with Australians who oppose the Assistance and Access Bill.

Under the GNU/Linux OSes, the goal of the main script shall be to periodically download a blocklist and update rules in a dedicated BLACKOUT chain in iptables. The repo also includes scripts to:

  • setup a dedicated BLACKOUT chain in the iptables filter table, and setup a privileged cron job for updating the iptable rules
  • stop any running cron job, remove the cron job, and tear down the dedicated BLACKOUT chain.

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