On WhatsApp security concerns

Stilgherrian writes: Re.”Minister for security agencies defying security agency advice” (Friday)

On Friday a tipster found it “astonishing” that Australia’s favourite Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis QC, and other ministers were using the messaging app WhatsApp. It hasn’t been approved by the Australian Signals Directorate, so won’t the ministers get in trouble?  No. They won’t. This was all dealt with in Senate Estimates back in October 2016. As I reported for ZDNet at the time, the ASD said, through the Prime Minister’s special advisor on cybersecurity, Alastair MacGibbon, that encrypted over-the-top applications such as WhatsApp provide users with “significant amounts” of privacy. “The Australian Signals Directorate has no concerns with such applications being used for unclassified communications,” they wrote in a statement. 

Ministers and others at the highest levels of government may be using WhatsApp, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re using WhatsApp for the highest levels of government communication.

ASD approval is needed for software handling “sensitive” communications, but that has a very narrow definition in the government’s Protective Security Policy Framework. It certainly doesn’t cover routine communications such as changing the time for a coffee meeting, asking when a report will be ready, or agreeing with colleagues that an opposition MP is a goose.  Using WhatsApp for these messages is as unremarkable as using the telephone, unencrypted email over the public internet, the fax machine (whatever that is), or a conversation in a bar. 

Much as it pains me to do so, I have to agree with Brandis that the whole thing is a non-issue.

 On Dave Sharma

The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council writes: Re. “Does DFAT support Israeli settlements?” (February 9)

 Crikey’s short piece “Does DFAT support Israeli settlements?” essentially attacks Australia’s Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, for “his support for the Israeli Government” and for “working with a group that actively promotes the key threat [which is settlements according to the article] to the two-state solution”.

The arguments presented can be debunked with relative ease. For example, early on the piece asserts that the two-state solution is “dead in the water thanks to incessant Israeli building on occupied land, illegal under the Geneva convention”:

  • As can be found here, settlements take up less than two per cent of the West Bank and no new settlements have been built since 1999. In fact, Israel has laws that forbid geographic expansion of settlements.
  • Peace Watch’s Lior Amihai said in a 2014 interview, in which he was extremely critical of settlements, that despite them a two-state outcome “is very possible”.
  • International law academic Prof Eugene Kontorovich, in a study of Article 49(6) of the Convention as it is applied around the world concluded that “the reaction to [Israel’s] West Bank settlements and interpretation of 49(6) generally applied is ‘entirely anomalous’.”

The piece then cites the fact Sharma organised a workshop on trends, challenges and scenarios on Israel’s northern border in conjunction with US-based organisation The Israel Project (TIP):

“TIP is a strong supporter of Israeli settlements and has commissioned consultants to test the best ways to convince Americans to back them. TIP even attacked outgoing secretary of state John Kerry for his anodyne statement in support of a two-state solution.”

In reality, TIP is not a strong supporter of settlements at all, but merely asked one question about settlements among many in a 2009 study about what language to use when discussing the many complex issues surrounding Israel , the Palestinians and the wider Middle East.

Presumably the second assertion relates to Kerry’s speech of December 2016, which TIP did indeed criticise. However, TIP did not criticise Kerry for supporting a two-state outcome, but rather the lack of balance in his speech, his support for the highly flawed UNSC Resolution 2334 and his insistence that the settlements, and not Palestinian intransigence, rejectionism and incitement, are the primary obstacle to a resolution.

Perhaps most concerning is Sharma is being attacked for doing his job, and doing it very well. Why wouldn’t an ambassador want his staff to be kept fully abreast of challenges and developments in the country in which they serve?

After all, Article 3 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations lists, among other things, a function of a diplomatic mission as “ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State”. Is a workshop on trends, challenges and scenarios on Israel’s northern border not fulfilling this criteria exactly? As for the assertion of Sharma’s “support for the Israeli Government”, another function of a diplomatic mission, according to the convention, is “promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations”.

Let’s be clear – Sharma’s role is to carry out the policy of the elected government in Canberra – that policy is to promote the growth of friendly relations with Israel, and also to work towards an eventual two-state Israeli Palestinian peace resolution. The writer of the Crikey attack may believe that it should be Australian policy to have nothing to do with the current Israeli government and to boycott anyone who is not explicitly and publicly anti-settlement, but that is simply not Australia’s current policy. Further it is not Sharma’s role as a public servant to implement the policy preferred by a blogger at Crikey, but that of the government he represents. And he has done that extremely well.

It is simply immoral to personally attack public servants for carrying out the policy of their elected government, even if one disagrees with it. Ambassador Sharma should be praised, not attacked.

Peter Fray

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