"The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia", said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today. He has been rightly mocked for this nonsense claim, that foreshadows moves to require online messaging providers to provide law enforcement with back door access to encrypted messages. He explained that "We need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities from the law." It bears repeating that Australia is part of the secretive spying and information sharing Five Eyes alliance.
But despite the well-deserved mockery that ensued, we shouldn't make too much light of the real risk that this poses to Internet freedom in Australia. It's true enough, for now, that a ban on end-to-end encrypted messaging in Australia would have absolutely no effect on "bad people", who would simply avoid using major platforms with weaker forms of encryption, in favor of other apps that use strong end-to-end encryption based on industry standard mathematical algorithms. It would hurt ordinary citizens who rely on encryption to make sure that their conversations are secure and private from prying eyes.
However, as similar demands are made elsewhere around the world, more and more app developers might fall under national laws that require them to compromise their encryption standards. Users of those apps, who may have a network of contacts who use the same app, might hesitate to shift to another app that those contacts don't use, even if it would be more secure. They might also worry that using end-to-end encryption would be breaking the law (a concern that "bad people" tend to be far less troubled by). This will put those users at risk.
If enough countries go down the same misguided path, that sees Australia following in the steps of Russia and the United Kingdom, the future could be a new international agreement banning strong encryption. Indeed, the Prime Minister's statement is explicit that this is exactly what he would like to see. It may seem like an unlikely prospect for now, with strong statements at the United Nations level in support of end-to-end encryption, but we truly can't know what the future will bring. What seems like a global accord today might very well start to crumble as more and more countries defect from it.
We can't rely on politicians to protect our privacy, but thankfully we can rely on math ("maths", as Australians say). That's what makes access to strong encryption so important, and Australia's move today so worrying. Law enforcement should have the tools they need to investigate crimes, but that cannot extend to a ban on the use of mathematical algorithms in software. Mr Turnbull has to understand that we either have an internet that "bad people" can use, or we don't have an Internet. It's actually as simple as that.