February 24, 2024

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Is the Assistance and Access Bill a threat to open-source?

Open-source browser creator pens a letter to the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on 12 October 2018. The company describes itself as an “international, mission-driven organisation that develops tools that empower individuals on the internet”.

Its contents detail contentions with the country’s draft Assistance and Access Bill. This will be third major industry player voicing its concerns. OpenGov Asia previously reported on the two US-based MNCs lines of contention. The open-source web browser’s complaints aren’t a far cry. Industry freedom to innovate and market products are its key concerns. The opening of the letter underscores the necessity of a laissez faire internet. It reads, “Any measure that allows a government to dictate the design of internet systems represents a significant risk to the security, stability, and trust of those systems.”

Main lines of contention lie with the three new authorities responsible for investigative and intelligence activities. Namely, the Technical Assistance Request (TAR), the Technical Assistance Notice (TAN), and the Technical Capability Notice (TCN). As the names suggest, each request the communications providers to assist Australia’s authorities on a voluntary basis in the form of providing information of identified consumers (TAR) and lending technical expertise (TAN). Under the provisions by the Attorney-General, TCN requires developing new capabilities in anticipation of a future TAR or TAN. They believe these, TCN in particular, will significantly weaken the security of the internet.

TCN Interpretation Too Open

The first bone picked is the “[in]sufficient limitations on the scope of potential requests to mitigate the challenges associated with these new powers”.

Although a detailed bill will suffocate, the company notes the current looseness implies that only those who have been identified to make judgements are allowed to determine a course of action. In the case of TCN, relevant ministries will be by-passed and only the Attorney-General will be consulted. Furthermore, it is unclear what capabilities are requested by TCNs.

Vagueness in the law will cause compliance issues down the road. A vendor is unlikely to pay heed to the law and subsequent technological developments might differ from what the Australian government had initially assumed to have expected.

Additionally, derived from their own interpretation of the bill, TCN would imply that a single vendor would be single-handedly responsible for developing a capability because of the secrecy demanded. Based on the ethos of open-source, the company believes such a methodology “contravenes the criteria we have established to make our development processes effective. Consequently, this risks making the output of our development less secure…” Compliance to the fullness of the law necessitates collaboration with other companies for their core development.

TCN “An Intentional Introduction of Vulnerability”

Should TCN become law, the company is concerned vulnerabilities will be introduced, wrecking widespread user and system insecurity. System compromises are bound to happen by authorising personnel outside of the organisation. The result is fragile trust with a customer.

Section 317E of the law is too broad, they claim. The letter reads, “under 317E(1)(e)(iii), a TCN could be used to cause the vendor of a traffic or weather information application to extract information from a messaging application. The definitions of what can be requested dangerously lacks clarity.”

Once the law kicks in, users of software might be disinclined to run a software update for fear of infringement of privacy. The overall consequence is highly vulnerable systems and exponential attacks.

Even if clarifications are made, the company says, “we don’t believe this to be an adequate safeguard”.

Cyberworld War?

The bill makes extraterritorial provisions in law. According to the company, these will push costs up and make compliance more complex for the entire industry. Industry players will become the losers as user expectations and trust are at risk.

Greater details must be substantiated to feasibly bound only companies which have operations in Australia.

Similar to US-based technology infrastructure company, the open-source web company believes if Australia is successful in passing the bill, it will set a precedent for the international community. In turn, attaching similar sets of problems the industry and governments may not be ready to resolve.

More Bad Things

What’s worse, the company thinks the lack of liberty for technology companies to voice out against requests “make cost and risk mitigation hard in practice”. Under the bill, vendors lack an avenue for appeal or objection, are sworn under secrecy, and can be compelled to cover up weaknesses they have introduced – things that would rub an open-source company the wrong way.

They have also urged the Australian authorities to better define “systemic”. The current ambiguity could lead to unintentional exploitation by the government or “a fast-path method to [compromise a] user’s data” which will lead to compromise by malicious actors.

Six other matters of consideration have been raised. However, the company says this list is not exhaustive.

Ending, the company says, “We ask Australia to join us in strengthening the security of the Internet, not weaken it.”


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