UTS hosts tech community to discuss encryption laws
Since Parliament passed the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill in December 2018, the new legislation has triggered widespread debate over data encryption, cyber security and the future of Australia’s tech industry.
Photo by Alessia Francischiello.
The Act enables Australian law enforcement agencies to compel companies to provide access to the encrypted communications of criminal suspects they are investigating. Leaders in Australia's tech sector have expressed concern about the new legislation, arguing it will harm business and grants law enforcement agencies unprecedented power to access private data.
To bring a range of industry voices together to discuss the Act, UTS hosted a town hall forum entitled Safe Encryption Australia - a coalition led by StartupAus and InnovationAus.
The event included speeches from Glenn Wightwick, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UTS Innovation and Enterprise; Ed Husic, Shadow Minister for Human Services and Digital Economy; Francis Galbally, Founder and Chair of Senetas; as well as a panel to discuss the impact of the legislation featuring:
Nicola Nye, Chief of Staff of Fast Mail
Eddie Sheehy, Founder of NUIX
Scott Farquhar, Co-Founder and Chair of Atlassian
Sarah Moran, CEO of Girl Geek Academy
The speakers and panellists highlighted a range of issues with the new legislation, as well as a number of proposed amendments and avenues for reform.
Will the reputation of Australian tech companies suffer?
Ed Husic took steps to explain Labor’s reasoning for voting for the bill in December, but in arguing for amendments to be made his message to law makers was “don’t wreck the tech”.
“This is much about national security as it is about economic security,” he said.
Nicola Nye dispelled the argument of intelligence chief Mike Burgess, Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate, that it’s a myth Australian tech companies will suffer. Nye shared her personal experience of the impact the new laws have had on her startup, Fast Mail.
“Our Twitter feed has been flooded by people saying “I’m leaving your service, should I even join your service, I can’t trust your service,” she said.
Francis Galbally of encryption provider Senetas warned that if amendments aren’t enacted, Australian tech companies will be forced offshore.
“We should be promoting our IT industry not ruining it,” he said.
A broken consultation process
The forum also revealed widespread frustration among the tech sector at the lack of thorough consultation prior to the legislation being enacted.
“One thing is clear – Australian industry and cyber experts were not consulted on the act and that makes for bad policy,” said Francis Galbally.
Galbally argues the process was presented as a top-down approach that largely ignored the needs of Australia’s tech companies, particularly new companies or small-scale startups that are now battling against the reforms.
“They didn’t take into consideration all the people in this room who have companies they are trying to get off the ground and the blood, sweat and tears that goes into building a startup.”
Scope and meaning
Along with concerns over the business impacts of the Assistance and Access Act, there was a general consensus among the panel over the need to restrict the scope of the legislation and refine its language and objectives - particularly where it refers to employees of technology companies.
Under the legislation, individual employees of technology companies could be compelled to assist law enforcement agencies with their investigations, and act against their employer’s interests.
“The legislation is so poorly written and whilst I don’t think it’s the government’s intention to conscript people, that ends up being the outcome,” said Atlassian’s Scott Farquhar.
“The best and shortest path for any government agency to get data would be to compel the whole company not an individual,” agreed Nicola Nye.
“It’s not just that it was badly written, the ideas behind the legislation are sloppy as well.”
The panellists agreed that a lack of clarity has resulted in tech-companies becoming collateral damage in legislation that fails to fulfil its intended purpose – to prevent serious crime and assist law enforcement and intelligence agencies in investigation.
“Rethinking what their end-goals were and working with people who are CEO’s of small, medium and large tech companies to target their narrow requirements is part of the solution,” said Eddie Sheehy.
As stated by Nicola Nye, “It’s very difficult to speak out as a leader of a tech company without incurring reputational damage.”
To combat the challenges of reforming the act, audience members were encouraged to reach out to their local MP as well as advocacy groups such as Electronic Frontiers Australia, Digital Rights Watch and the Australia Privacy Foundation.
Scott Farquhar urged the audience to continue the conversation and push for change beyond the event.
“The way things get changed are through events like this and making sure issues like this don’t fall off the political radar.”
Responding to a question from Murray Hurps, UTS Director of Entrepreneurship, Ed Husic firmly stated Labor’s commitment to amending the legislation regardless of the results of the upcoming federal election.
A full recording of the debate can be viewed here.