Testimony before the Parliament of Australia: Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement

The Australian government, like many around the world, is wrestling with issues about how to adapt law enforcement to the digital era. On May 11, 2018, two of Access Now staff testified before a parliamentary inquiry examining these issues, focusing on encryption. Their prepared testimony is below. Testimony and the following discussion is available for download here

May 11, 2018

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Joint Committee  on Law Enforcement’s inquiry on the impact of new and emerging information and communications technologies. And thank you and the Secretariat for allowing us to speak with you remotely.

We are Nathan White and Amie Stepanovich of Access Now. Access Now is an international civil society organization established in 2009 to defend and extend digital rights of users at risk around the world.

At Access Now digital security is one of our primary focus areas. We operate a 24/7 Digital Security Helpline that works with individuals and organizations around the world to keep them safe online, including to improve digital security practices and provide rapid-response emergency assistance. We have done extensive work related to cybersecurity, integrity of communications systems, government hacking, and the importance of encryption, and that is what we would like to discuss here today.

We have developed significant experience on the topic of encryption. Among other things, Access Now has organized three events on the topic, including a private multi-stakeholder roundtable at the end of 2017 with technologists and members of the Obama Administration. We also convene the international coalition hosted at securetheinternet.org, an open letter signed by more than 300 organizations, companies, and experts internationally. This letter, which we submitted to the present inquiry, explains how encryption is central to protection for human rights, the digital economy, and the preservation of cybersecurity. Further, we published “The Role of Encryption in Australia,” a report authored by Lizzie O’Shea and Elise Thomas and submitted to this inquiry. The report establishes the importance of encryption specifically in the Australian context, also showing the necessity of encryption to preserving Australia’s national security and the potential harm that could be caused by weakening encryption.

For our testimony today we want to reiterate four points from these submissions and our prior work:

  1. Encryption is important – it provides the foundation for our digital world, and in a country like Australia, where nearly 90% of the population has access to the internet, encryption is essential for protecting not only the cybersecurity of connected critical infrastructure, but also protecting its people from criminal activity online.
  2. Undermining encryption hurts security – every proposal for a mechanism to allow law enforcement to bypass encryption has been found to have security flaws that could, if deployed, cause grave damage to people, governments, and infrastructure. It could also have knock-on effects that we cannot anticipate today.
  3. Undermining encryption will not solve law enforcement’s problems – principles of sovereignty and criminal incentives will likely drive law enforcement targets toward tools and technologies that are beyond the reach of any mandated access mechanism, leaving those who are less technically sophisticated or financially privileged to bear the brunt on any insecurity caused by a mandate; and finally
  4. There are other means to assist law enforcement – there are many questions at the intersection of crime and technology, and as this committee has recognized, those questions cannot be addressed in a silo. These topics require careful consideration and investment, including in education and training for law enforcement and research into rights-respecting mechanisms to streamline cross-border requests for data needed. Experts have identified strategies to help law enforcement without undermining encryption. While these would have to be evaluated for their impact on human rights, they provide a better starting point for these conversations and a good path for further investigation.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you today. We look forward to your questions.