Bail Conditions For Arrested Australian Activists Demand The Impossible: No Using Encrypted Applications

from the encryption-in-the-land-down-under dept

The Australian government doesn’t care much for encryption. It has, for years, tried to legislate encryption out of the picture. A law passed in 2018 gives the government the power to compel encryption-breaking efforts from tech companies.

The law survived a cursory review by the Parliamentary Joint Committee. Its 2021 report said the law was completely legal. And, even though it found oversight of the new encryption-breaking powers was inadequate, the law was a good thing for the government. Very little was said about the people affected by the law or the tech companies being forced to make their offerings less secure in Australia.

As Australian law enforcement sees it, the only people who actually need encrypted services and devices are criminals. And that’s why suspected criminals (who have only been accused of crimes at this point) are being forced to give up their access to encrypted services, as Ariel Bogle reports for ABC (the Australian one) News.

Since late June, Greg Rolles must produce on demand his computer and mobile phone for police inspection, and tell them his passwords.

He is not allowed to use any encrypted messaging apps, like Signal or WhatsApp. He can only have one mobile phone.

And there is a list of 38 people, many of whom are his friends, who he’s not allowed to associate with in any way — even, another activist found, liking a post on social media.

Rolles is allegedly a member of activist group Blockade Australia. The group has been known to engage in highly disruptive protests. Those often involve immobilizing vehicles and equipment. And there have allegedly been incidents where police officers (or at least the vehicles they’re in) have been attacked.

Thanks to a new anti-protest law, the government is able to treat even more innocuous protests in a heavy-handed manner. As this post detailing Blockade and its interaction with the new law notes, some members are being hit with 10-year prison sentences. Others have been arrested for vague violations like “planning to block traffic.”

The bail conditions are equally heavy-handed. As noted above, arrested Blockade members have been forbidden from using encrypted messaging apps or associating with each other. One member found themselves in violation of their bail conditions simply for sending a “thumbs up” emoji in response to a Facebook post by another member. (Bail violation charges were ultimately dropped for this action, but it still involved the person being accosted by police, detained, and booked.)

The restrictions imposed on Rolle have cut him off from the Afghanistan residents his church was providing assistance to. They communicated via WhatsApp, which is no longer an option for Rolle.

But it’s not just WhatsApp and Signal. Plenty of apps (and internet services) utilize encryption. And the bail terms are vague enough it could prevent Rolle and others like him from living somewhat normal lives while out on bail.

Large swathes of the internet are encrypted, which simply means that information is converted into code to protect it from unwanted access. Apps from online banking to streaming services are typically encrypted.

“Encryption is everywhere because it’s a fundamental part of keeping modern communications technology secure and functional,” a spokesperson for Electronic Frontiers Australia said.

“[That includes] essentially any modern device, including laptops, mobile phones, ATMs, TVs, PlayStations, and government websites such as myGov, Medicare, and Centrelink.”

The bail conditions forbid arrestees (who are only accused of crimes at this point) from “possessing an encrypted application/media application.” That covers a lot of ground, especially since so many sites providing services from banking to streaming to news delivery prefer to route users through proprietary apps — apps that generally utilize encryption in one form or another.

Even those who feel the courts’ hearts are in the right place — attempting to prevent the planning of future protests that may be disruptive and/or turn violent — feel these conditions go too far. The head attorney at the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre (Jane Sanders) stated this imposed a possibly unlawful restriction on the rights of people who’ve only been accused of criminal activity.

“To effectively shut down the right to political communication with these conditions, it seems extreme to me,” Ms Sanders said.

Well, as they say, the extremity is the point. The government has already deemed encryption to a tool of criminals and terrorists. The passage of a law increasing punishments for protest-related activity was meant to deter dissent. These new bail conditions drive it home: speak up against the government and/or its favored corporations and you can expect to have your life derailed, your communications severely restricted, and your freedom while bailed eliminated at a moment’s notice.

Filed Under: australia, bail, bail conditions, blockade australia, encryption, greg rolles, protests

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