The Australian government has been arguing for some time that it needs a backdoor into people's messages, including ones encrypted by services like WhatsApp, and now it looks like it's going to happen.
The big political parties down under have agreed on new laws that let the powers that be access people's encrypted communications, and it looks like they'll pass by the end of the week.
The laws are unsurprisingly proving very unpopular with privacy advocates, tech companies and anyone with sense. We're not being facetious: it's genuinely a terrible idea, as we and many others have argued over and over again whenever this miserable topic rears its head.
Australia's government is far from the only one trying to creep on people's messages, but what all the authorities begging for these powers have in common is that they just don't seem to understand what it is they're asking for.
You can't put in a backdoor that can only be used by the proper authorities for proper reasons. It can't be done. If you force tech companies to backdoor their products – which the Aussie gov says it's not doing, but how else is it going to work? – you introduce vulnerabilities that could lead to far, far worse problems than terrorists WhatsApping each other bomb emojis (OK, now we're being facetious).
Essentially, what the government is saying is that they need to poke around in terrorists' houses, therefore everyone has to leave a window open at all times. Yes, it's obviously a bit more complex than that, but the key point is that there's no way to open that window for some people and not others. Once it's open, there's a whole community of bad actors rubbing their hands with glee at the possibilities for harm.
It's completely understandable that governments of people who – let's be honest – don't really understand tech or encryption feel they need to be able to monitor messages that could lead to horrendous events and unnecessary loss of life. If your loved one died in a terrorist attack, you'd probably say the same: screw the downsides, we need access to those messages so we can prevent this happening again. But realistically, the harm caused by backdoors could be even worse. It's just harder to imagine.
Companies like Facebook and Google have spoken out against the measure, Apple has written to the Australian government to reiterate why it's a bad idea, and a consortium of tech companies including Twitter and Amazon (called the Digital Industry Group) has pleaded with the government not to make them build weak points into their products. But it looks like it's all fallen on deaf ears.
Australian shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus is quoted by Sky News as saying:
"Let me be clear - this bill is far from perfect and there are likely to be significant outstanding issues.
But this compromise will deliver security and enforcement agencies the powers they say they need over the Christmas period."
Yikes. "Far from perfect." "Significant outstanding issues." "The powers they say they need."
None of that is remotely reassuring.