Brisbane Cryptoparty: What is It & Why Does It Matter?

Despite not being a tech head, I will be speaking at the cryptoparty being held in Brisbane on Wednesday. Details of the event are at this link, however it is booked out so the only option this time around is to register for the waiting list.

I want to make the simple albeit sad point that we have become far too complacent about the almost unlimited capacity of key government agencies to gather information about the activities of their citizens. Even worse, there is almost no effective scrutiny of the work of those agencies, and very weak laws when it comes to ensuring those agencies do not misuse that information or the very broad powers they have. As they did in the Howard era, the ALP has been basically in lockstep with the Liberal Party when it comes to regularly allowing laws to pass which continually and dramatically expand the powers of security agencies (and the resources dedicated to them) and weaken the oversight of their activities. This of course is always done using the justification of national security.

We know government agencies monitor the activities of people who are not even remotely connected to terrorism or other serious security or legal threats. We also know that we cannot trust that information gathered will not be misused by governments or unaccountable security agencies. Lawyers, journalists, politicians, business people and activists all have an incentive to learn encryption techniques.

Because I’m not a techhead, I won’t try to outline how encryption techniques work. This link provides a good summary of what encryption is and why so many people would benefit from learning about it. That’s what the cryptoparty is for – an enjoyable way for everyone to learn about encryption tools.

We know from recent history in Queensland and Australia that law enforcement agencies can act in politically motivated ways, and can target people for their political beliefs, rather than because of public safety matters. In the 1970s and 80s, the Queensland Police and in particular its notorious Special Branch, openly targeted political opponents of the then government. At a national level, is it beyond dispute that ASIO did the same. Surveillance technology was in the stone age then compared to what is now available and in use.

In more recent times, there have been longstanding credible allegations that the federal spy agency ASIS was involved in illegally bugging the East Timorese government as part of trying to advantage the Australian government in negotiations regarding the economic carve up of the Timor Gap oil and gas field. As the Crikey media outlet has repeatedly highlighted, the ones in legal trouble are those who have lawfully revealed this activity, not those in government who authorised or tolerated it.

Assurances that government agencies act within the law are not worth much when the laws are such that the agencies have close to open slather, the prospect of detecting wrongdoing is minimal. Even making public illegal action by bodies like ASIS can be illegal.

The capacity of Parliament to effectively monitor the work of government security agencies is far weaker in Australia than it is in the USA or UK. I know from my own experience on Senate Committees that expecting these agencies to provide meaningful information about their activities is basically futile. In recent years, this general contempt for transparency and accountability has become far worse – as evidenced by the now routine refusal for any information to be provided about the activities of Defence and other government officials who engage with asylum seekers.

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