Jul 17, 2017

The weapons in Turnbull’s war on maths are dodgy and dangerous to users and security agencies

It's unclear how Malcolm Turnbull proposes to fight encryption but one technique already in use illustrates the dangers of relying on "backdoors" of any type.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Turnbull Encryption

With Malcolm Turnbull declaring on Friday that the laws of Australia will override the laws of mathematics, you'd think we'd be closer to understanding exactly what the government wants to do to undermine encryption. But despite media conferences and interviews, it's still entirely unclear exactly what the government proposes to compel IT companies to do -- although the Luddite-for-the-ages George Brandis insisted on Friday that it would all be straightforward because the UK's electronic spy agency GCHQ had assured him it would be.

So what form will this war on maths take? What we know is that agencies like GCHQ, the NSA and the CIA haven't -- despite Brandis' blithe dismissals -- managed to penetrate widely used encryption methods used online by companies like Apple and Google. Instead, what they aim to do is access the devices using that encryption to obtain information before it is encrypted, and relay it to agencies. That was a key lesson from the trove of CIA hacking tools that turned up on Wikileaks last year.

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19 thoughts on “The weapons in Turnbull’s war on maths are dodgy and dangerous to users and security agencies

  1. Mike Smith

    It’s reassuring that Turnbull knows as much as Brandis on this subject.

  2. editorbruce

    Somebody should explain to Mr Turnbull and Mr Brandis that if they achieve their goal and gain access to communications, those tools will be used by the bad guys and no doubt others to gain access to Turnbull’s and Brandis’s own communications. We need public acknowledgment that they understand this and consider it acceptable.

    1. lykurgus

      No they won’t. Turnbull uses message-destruction apps like Wickr (while I make the concession that “ephemeral messaging” could reasonably describe anything he does); you know, the same one that he says makes you a terrorist.
      That’s when he’s not trying to explain to old Soapy what metadata is (“no, not ‘medadada’, there’s only one d in ‘metadata'”)

  3. klewso

    Maybe he’s been drinking Toady’s ‘cordial’?

    (That pic? A “Before & After” ad for Advanced Hair?)

  4. Zarathrusta

    That’s because the basis of these encryption methods it to use operations that are cheap in one direction and hard in the other (think of how much more fun multiplying big numbers is than long division). If you have the decryption key, you can go forward and multiply. Otherwise the only way back is long and very hard.
    Modern encryption is based on the laws of mathematics and the numbers are chosen to be big enough that even those with the most expensive computers can’t afford the computing power to crack them.

  5. Dog's Breakfast

    This was a bridge too far. If Tony had said this we would reasonably assume he is an idiot and incapable of understanding the concepts behind encryption.

    With Malcolm, the assumption is either that he doesn’t understand and is therefore not nearly as smart as he has let on, or he does understand and is happy to make baldly stupid remarks to support his argument.

    In which case, he isn’t nearly as smart as we may have thought previously.

    I’m going with not nearly as smart, he wouldn’t be the first lawyer who had no idea how numbers work, which is a problem for someone who is supposed to be the modifying brains behind the inept Treasurer.

    Does anyone in the coalition understand basic maths?

    1. klewso

      Maybe he wants to be seen to be doing something/anything -> so long as we’re not watching him and Abbott ……?

      As for his affinity for numbers – wait ’til we get the bill?

      1. MJM

        I was about to add a similar comment – he understands big numbers only when they follow a $ sign.

  6. Dog's Breakfast

    By the way, if this gets through in any way, I’m not doing any more phone or internet banking, or internet shopping, or bloody near anything of importance on the internet.

  7. Tony Syad

    How will Malcolm message/conspire with LNP members if there are no encrypted apps?

  8. Ian Roberts

    I think Malcolm has a 7-point security plan for us.
    Step 1: ban prime numbers;
    Step 2: -oh dammit!

    1. Zarathrusta

      Maybe the way to get rid of the numskulls in our government is to change the currency so it only has prime denominations. They’d be too busy adding up to cause trouble.

  9. Phil O'Brien

    No one should be surprised. The LNP has been at war with physics over climate change for years, biology over the state of the Great Barrier Reef (and many other things), and geology in insisting that onshore gas resources on Victoria will save our power crises. Why not mathematics as well?

  10. The hood

    What next for Malcolm, A War on the Laws of Physics?
    Oh maybe he already started that war with his energy and direct action policies

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