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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 09 June 2017, 5:21 pm

Crypto Rant (sorry about that)

By the time you read this the UK elections will have closed and we should have some idea of who is running the show.

The money is on Theresa May and the Conservatives for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the Tories' traditional "tough on crime" stance which has more recently morphed into a "tough on terrorism" claim.

This is somewhat alarming as one of the things May has suggested the UK do (along with changing the human rights laws should the need arise) is to ban certain types of cryptography, and to ensure that secure message services, like WhatsApp, are equipped with a back door to allow those in authority to listen in.

Let's put aside for the moment the issue of the US National Security Agency's role in the recent WannaCry infection (and May's own role in ensuring the National Health Service didn't have the security licences they needed) and focus on the issue of governments and their dislike of cryptography, encryption and associated tools of the trade.

Since before the September 11 attacks, governments around the western world (the so-called Five Eyes group predominantly) have been very keen on ensuring the citizens of the world can't hide their communications from the authorities. Partly this is due to fears around terrorist activity but partly it's also due to the obvious pressure this kind of communication would bring to bear on the financial systems of the world. Private communication, unhindered by law enforcement, can quickly become private wealth transfers and that makes life very difficult for the authorities indeed.

Of course, telling everyone they need to spy on our communications in order to ensure we are paying our taxes isn't a strong selling point, so initially we were told it was about child pornography and catching paedophiles. But terrorism is an even more urgent call to action and after 9/11 that became the main thrust of laws regarding digital communications.

Think I'm a conspiracy theorist? Well, I would too, except I came across the International Law Enforcement Telecommunications Seminar (ILETS), a group of police and security forces from around 20 countries (including New Zealand) who met regularly to discuss just this topic.

Founded in 1993, ILETS almost doesn't show up at all on the internet. A Google search asks if I've misspelt another acronym, but the stories are still there (search for the full name) and they tell a tale of law enforcers waiting for an opportunity to introduce new laws that restrict encryption from every day use.

After 9/11 we were all too eager to gift our security agencies with new powers to combat terrorism and several strange things happened as a result. One of which was you lost your right to remain silent in New Zealand courts.

No, really.

The full story is linked to below but in essence if a police officer serves you with a warrant to search your house you have to stand aside and let them in. However, if you are served with a warrant to search your computer, you have to actively help. Is that folder locked? Open it, or face jail time.

I don't know about you but I have encrypted stuff on my laptop that wasn't put there by me. I don't know how half of this stuff works and rely entirely on my IT providers to make sure I'm good to go. If a plod asked me to provide the decryption key to anything beyond my Dropbox account, I'm stuffed.

That came into New Zealand law in 2003. Since then we've extended even more powers to the security services in the name of keeping us safe.

Now the push is on to allow back-door access to messaging services, like WhatsApp and iMessage, and the danger is that in providing our police with such access, we're building insecurity into our most secure services.

The Aussies and our own PM have also talked about allowing police to intercept such traffic and by "allowing" they really mean "enabling".

Those of us who understand what that looks like and what it would mean for online banking, for health records, even for watching TV over the internet, should stand up and say something before we aren't allowed to say such things in public any longer.

Newshub - NZ considers letting police access encrypted messages

BoingBoing - Theresa May wants to ban crypto

CNN - Theresa May: Internet must be regulated to prevent terrorism

Computerworld - No right to silence for computer owners (2003)

The Guardian - Intercepting the Internet (1999)

The Register - Australia to float 'not backdoors' that behave just like backdoors to Five-Eyes meeting

The Register - Break crypto to monitor jihadis in real time? Don't be ridiculous, say experts

NBR - Renewed call on encryption ban


The backdoor


The Apple of our eye

Yes, it's that time of year again when Apple releases exciting new products that both meet and defy our expectations of what is …..

Oh who am I kidding. Apple hasn't done that in years.

Instead, we've got faster processors in laptops, faster processors in desktops (yes, Apple still makes desktops), faster processors in iPhones and iPads and a speaker.

Oh and the news that iOS 11 will be 64-bit only so all those 32-bit apps you're running will fall by the wayside and yeah, if you've got an iPhone 5 then it's toast I'm afraid. Yup, inbuilt obsolescence is a thing. And yes, I'm aware we should always run the latest operating system for security etc but when you're quite happy with a $1000 device, upgrading it just because of software requirements seems a bit on the nose.

The Apple speaker, known as the HomePod, sits oddly halfway between the Google and Amazon smart devices (where you shout at them until they figure out what you're asking, which is taking less and less time each iteration) and the wireless speakers of Sonos and its ilk (which are really good at producing gorgeous sound but are a bit dim when it comes to connecting to the world). It's a move clearly designed to get Apple into the game, but smacks of Microsoft's old approach (version one sucks, version two is laughable, version three makes people sit up and take note, version four rules the world) which frankly doesn't appeal.

Former Techblog editor Juha Saarinen is more forgiving, pointing out that the new update to Safari will block videos from automatically playing in your browser. This is actually a stupidly good thing that makes me consider moving from Chrome to Safari but I can't help but wish for the old days of "oh, just one more thing" that led to a re-imagination of something I didn't know needed reimagining.

9to5Mac - Roundup: Everything Apple announced today at WWDC 2017

Forbes - Apple iOS 11 Announcement: What Are The New Features?

Stuff - Apple's iOS 11 will make iPhone 5 and 5c obsolete

Digital Trends - Here's everything you need to know about the latest iMac and iMac Pro

NZ Herald - Apple's clever 'gut-punch' to rivals

The Verge - How does Apple's HomePod compare to cheaper options from Amazon and Sonos?


Telco Commissioner gets three years hard labour

It seems harsh but clearly it's a job someone has to do. Stephen Gale, the Telecommunications Commissioner, has been sentenced reappointed to another three years in the hot seat. And may God have mercy on his soul etc.

The Telco Commissioner role is a vitally important one in the industry. The role really is that of sheriff and the power to take action, not merely to recommend action, has been vital to the success of the industry in recent years.

Hopefully you don't remember the bad old days (I myself am blocking them out) where the incumbent would repeatedly find ways to inveigle the Minister, and avoid opening up to competition. Spark CEO Simon Moutter described the old world order as "walking backwards slowly fending off competition" and I couldn't have put it better. We repeatedly saw clear anti-competitive decisions referred to the courts or to the minister himself for resolution with little effort to resolve complex issues in a timely fashion.

Fast forward to the Telco Commissioner's role and you have decisions being produced in a much more effective way and the whole industry (both consumer and provider) has benefited as a result.

Indeed, the Commissioner's role has weathered many a storm including having a Minister who was hell bent on overruling his determination process. Given the Commissioner's independence is paramount, many organisations (including ITP) banded together to fend off this move and thankfully we were successful. When government is funding a project it shouldn't also be regulating the project: that's all a bit too close to the bone for my liking. The referee should always be free to regulate properly and Gale has shepherded the industry from the copper years through to a more vibrant, competitive era that sees prices come down, speeds go up and service…

Well, he's not superman you know.

Good luck to Dr Gale for the next three years.

Scoop - Telecommunications Commissioner reappointed

NBR - Telco Commissioner Stephen Gale reappointed for another 3 years as govt pushes reform package


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