Computer Says No


It’s not breaking the Official Secrets Act to reveal that governments love national security pretexts. There’s no end of embarrassing files which can be kept under wraps when security implications are added to the mix. And of course, governments around the world are getting increasingly proficient at shaking their "terrist" pom-poms any time they… well, just any time, really.

Combine this heavy reliance on security rationale with technology that few journalists understand, and you have a perfect recipe for obfuscation.

Last week Julia Gillard and Robert McClelland went into national security overdrive to defend planned changes to the Telecommunications Act which will allow employers to keep an eye on their employees’ email. The media followed suit, with a flurry of stories on the threat of "cyber terror".

Jacques Chester at Club Troppo has already diligently uncovered the truth behind the headlines. He points out that under the existing Act, while it is illegal for unauthorised persons to intercept an email, plenty of exemptions are already in place, such as "Telco workers testing the line at the local phone node… [and]coppers clutching a fistful of warrants".

As a matter of routine, most companies in Australia operate a fairly standard system which observes email passing in and out, and may or may not keep a copy of emails on the company server. Because these companies are not subject to an exemption under the Act, they are officially breaking the law. So, as Chester points out, "instead of letting this come up in some future court case, the Government decided simply to legislate the problem away by expanding the exempted class to include companies who scan emails and web traffic."

No worries, no big deal. Except that someone forgot to tell the two ministers about the Big Plan, and we ended up with a sorry string of incomprehensible, ignorant babble about cyber-terrorism.

Gillard set the ball rolling
with her interview on Today, in which she said the proposals had to do with "safeguarding vital IT systems … If our banking system collapsed, if our electronic system collapsed, obviously that would have huge implications for society. So we want to make sure they are safe from terrorist attack." Were those the only comments on the subject, the whole thing could have been written off as some unfortunate phrasing, stemming from a caffeine deficit on a Monday morning. Unfortunately, the Attorney-General blasted a hole through that potential line of defence by tying the whole thing back to national security and infiltration of "sensitive systems" (again).

Something seems not quite right about this whole yarn. For one thing, I have trouble with the idea that two senior ministers would independently incriminate themselves to the extent that Gillard and McClelland did. More disturbingly, even if there really is nothing more to the story than a media beat-up over an insignificant loophole, it’s still disconcerting that both ministers were so happy to reach for the PANIC TERRORIST ALERT button, without provocation. So, using the most powerful political espionage tool available to me (a phone), I thought I’d ask.

After being handballed by Julia Gillard’s office to the Attorney-General, the next stop was McClelland’s PR minder, Adam Sims. I offered him a way out, by asking him exactly what the proposals entailed — it seems that as Chester explained, it was a legislative change to remove a grey area in the legislation. Which is fair enough.

But what exactly had the Attorney-General meant when he brought up the issue of national security?

"If critical areas of infrastructure get bombarded, that’s all part and parcel of [the proposals]."

Huh? That pretty much leaves us back at square one.

We are thus left to ponder a government that doesn’t know what it’s doing; alternatively, we have one that does, but would prefer that no one else did. Given the Government’s track record on matters technological, the stars are lining up in favour of the former. But that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Not that the Opposition is any better. Brendan Nelson’s immediate reaction was to say that the proposal had "some merit", before going on a rambling rant about privacy implications.

Anyone with even a modicum of tech savvy knows that an unencrypted email — which most are — is about as secure as a postcard. It is a piece of cake for employers to read emails sent on workplace PCs — and assuming that your workplace’s IT policy includes such a clause, it’s virtually certain that they do. The debate isn’t really about privacy at all, apart from the fact that it’s unlikely that potential cyber-terrorists will be hatching their schemes for world domination from a Telstra workstation. Using the ministers’ justifications, the only people affected in reality are normal workers whose workplace IT agreements don’t already allow their employers to read their emails.

In fact, the real issue here is the willingness of government to latch on to the security argument. It’s worth considering, too, just how nebulous and poorly defined the whole concept of "cyber-terrorism" is. I asked the offices of all the ministers who had issued a statement for clarification on exactly what they saw as constituting cyber-terrorism. Those of Dr Nelson and Senator Brandis ignored my request in their reply; Julie Bishop ignored me full stop; Julia Gillard passed me on to Robert McClelland, and after several follow-ups the Attorney-General’s office is yet to get back to me.

If our banking system collapsed, if our electronic system collapsed, I know who I’d be turning to.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.