In addition to its village idiot approach to undermining end-to-end encryption in new surveillance laws, the government is also seeking a blunt-force trauma approach: it wants to jail people for a decade if they refuse to give up the password to their devices.
Under the draft Assistance and Access Bill 2018 unveiled yesterday, the government is giving police, spy agencies and regulators like the ATO the power to demand that tech companies help them plant malware on computers and phones to help it defeat end-to-end encryption.
But if they’re not able to access your device to put a virus on it, the government proposes to give them another option. They can go to a judge or AAT member and obtain an order directing anyone who may know anything about the device to help them get access to it. If that person fails to help, they face “imprisonment for 10 years or 600 penalty units, or both.” Six hundred penalty units is currently over $120,000.
The inclusion of AAT members is handy, as the government has stacked the AAT with Liberal figures, including the micro-thin-skinned former right-wing Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic, who publicly attacked debate around civil liberties as interfering with the work of intelligence agencies.
So imagine the following scenario: a journalist who has embarrassed the government with her reporting, or a lawyer representing representing a defendant in a national security trial, arrives back in Australia to be met by Border Force officials clutching an order from an ex-MP on the AAT requiring them to not merely hand over their phones and laptop but passwords to access them and the passwords of individual apps on them.
Unlike the token “journalist information warrant” provisions of the data retention bill, there are no protections for particular professions that rely on confidentiality in the new bill. The journalist or lawyer will face a significant new threat: hand over full access to all of their information to the government, potentially placing sources and clients in jeopardy, or going to jail for a decade and being bankrupted.
Thank goodness this government has no history of abusing its powers, huh?