11 September 2019

Bermagui start-up joins global tech giants in anti-encryption protest

| Ian Campbell
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File photo.

A Bega Valley start-up has joined global technology giants in criticising the anti-encryption laws passed during the last sitting of Federal Parliament for 2018.

Under the banner of the Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) coalition, companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Dropbox, Evernote and Twitter have slammed the new laws.

In a statement earlier this month, the group said, “RGS has consistently opposed any government action that would undermine the cybersecurity, human rights, or the right to privacy of our users – unfortunately, the Assistance and Access Bill that was just passed through the Australian Parliament will do just that.”

“The new Australian law is deeply flawed, overly broad, and lacking in adequate independent oversight,” according to RGS.

Generally speaking, the laws require telcos, manufacturers, and software developers to assist law enforcement agencies to break into encrypted messages created by platforms like ‘WhatsApp.’

The Morrison Government argued that the laws were necessary in order to monitor and combat terrorist risks over Christmas. The Shorten Opposition backed the laws but on the condition they would be revisited at the next sitting of parliament and amendments considered.

Meanwhile, journalist and web developer Austin Mackell and his partner Aliya Alwi have launched what they believe is “the world’s first transparency system.”

Write In Stone, seamlessly tracks computer workflows using screen capture and webcam commentaries,” Mr Mackell says.

“The project was designed to help good journalists track and share their work processes with their audiences but we’re considering all kinds of uses where due diligence and proof-of-work can help build trust.

“Our first market are journalists who want to earn the trust of their audiences and show that their work is original, and they have checked their own facts. Hence our slogan – Research is Valuable. Make it Visible,” he says.

“This is what will overcome the credibility crisis which is undermining the public sphere.”

Mr Mackell has just written to the Member for Eden-Monaro, Dr Mike Kelly urging Labor to force amendments in the new year. In his letter to Dr Kelly, Mr Mackell claims the new anti-encryption laws place his family’s Bermagui-based enterprise at risk.

“We had good news at our little start-up tech company Write In Stone over the weekend, raising over 300,000 in investment as part of a seed round. We fully expect to raise that much again or more in the coming months,” Mr Mackell writes in his letter.

“We will spend most of this on salaries and had arranged for our employees to move to Bermagui starting February. This will hopefully be a major injection of cash into the local economy. Not to mention more young families moving to the region.

“But the passage of the Access and Assistance Bill throws all that into question.

“This law, which may compel our employees to install spyware on our systems undermines our capacity to offer guarantees of privacy to our customers.

“Labor under Shorten had promised to protect us from this outcome. It is now law, pending promises from the LNP to consider amendments next year.

“During this critical fundraising phase, the rug has been pulled out from under us.

“We are forced to consider a rapid relocation outside Australia. We can probably hold off a decision till after parliament resumes next year, but if the dangerous and authoritarian bill is not fixed immediately our plan to run a global company from the Far South Coast will likely be aborted.

“Mike, I hope you will consider the effects of this bill on the region and on our national civic culture,” he writes.

Aliya Alwi and Austin McKell, the Bermagui based brains and passion behind Write In Stone. Photo: Supplied.

Aliya Alwi and Austin McKell, the Bermagui-based brains and passion behind Write In Stone. Photo: Supplied.

In speaking with Region Media, Mr Mackell says his young family loves living in Bermagui and is hoping to build a life in the area. Mr Mackell was raised in Sydney, Ms Alwi in the Middle East.

“It’s beautiful. We have a kid in the local preschool and he has friends. We think our employees will love it here too,” he says.

Mr Mackell believes the issue goes beyond tech companies and is one that the broader community should take an interest in.

“The person whose info it is doesn’t have to be a suspect, they just have to be ‘relevant’ or have relevant info, so journalists like our users would have no assurances of any kind.”

“We’re now looking into outsourcing work that would have happened here to Germany or somewhere else in the EU where the law protects consumers.”

While accepting the need to be vigilant against terrorism, Mr Mackell believes these measures are an overreaction.

“Many more Australians have been killed by domestic violence than by terrorism.”

“But we don’t see people’s civil liberties being ripped away.”

He fears the laws will be used beyond anti-terror operations.

“It’s an excuse used to grant the government the power to spy on everyone. It doesn’t even have to be related to a terrorism investigation. It can be used to aid the investigation of any crime with more than a three-year sentence.

“It can even be used in investigations into whistleblowers under new anti-leaking laws. This is all part of a broad authoritarian drift.”

Region Media will follow up with the Member for Eden-Monaro, Dr Mike Kelly in the new year.

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Michael Butler10:45 am 19 Dec 18

Not only does this ill conceived law take away a basic civil right, it starts us sliding down a very slippery slope .. where does it end ?
It also opens backdoors into our privacy and personal security which will be the first target for all criminal organisations looking to steal our shiny rocks, identities etc etc.
The conservatives yet again show their contempt for Australia’s citizens and the labour party show they’re too afraid to stand up for right. There’s a principle at stake here.
To do this in one breath and threaten whistle blowers who will expose government wrong doing add’s insult to injury, we have no right to any privacy in case someone is doing something dodgy, but we can’t shine a light on the government definitely doing the wrong thing

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