For centuries, cryptography was the exclusive preserve of the state. Then, in 1976, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman came up with a practical method for establishing a shared secret key over an authenticated (but not confidential) communications channel without using a prior shared secret. The following year, three MIT scholars – Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman – came up with the RSA algorithm (named after their initials) for implementing it. It was the beginning of public-key cryptography – at least in the public domain.
From the very beginning, state authorities were not amused by this development. They were even less amused when in 1991 Phil Zimmermann created Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software for signing, encrypting and decrypting texts, emails, files and other things. PGP raised the spectre of ordinary citizens – or at any rate the more geeky of them – being able to wrap their electronic communications in an envelope that not even the most powerful state could open. In fact, the US government was so enraged by Zimmermann’s work that it defined PGP as a munition, which meant that it was a crime to export it to Warsaw Pact countries. (The cold war was still relatively hot then.)
In the four decades since then, there’s been a conflict between the desire of citizens to have communications that are unreadable by state and other agencies and the desire of those agencies to be able to read them. The aftermath of 9/11, which gave states carte blanche to snoop on everything people did online, and the explosion in online communication via the internet and (since 2007) smartphones, has intensified the conflict. During the Clinton years, US authorities tried (and failed) to ensure that all electronic devices should have a secret backdoor, while the Snowden revelations in 2013 put pressure on internet companies to offer end-to-end encryption for their users’ communications that would make them unreadable by either security services or the tech companies themselves. The result was a kind of standoff: between tech companies facilitating unreadable communications and law enforcement and security agencies unable to access evidence to which they had a legitimate entitlement.
In August, Apple opened a chink in the industry’s armour, announcing that it would be adding new features to its iOS operating system that were designed to combat child sexual exploitation and the distribution of abuse imagery. The most controversial measure scans photos on an iPhone, compares them with a database of known child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and notifies Apple if a match is found. The technology is known as client-side scanning or CSS.
Powerful forces in government and the tech industry are now lobbying hard for CSS to become mandatory on all smartphones. Their argument is that instead of weakening encryption or providing law enforcement with backdoor keys, CSS would enable on-device analysis of data in the clear (ie before it becomes encrypted by an app such as WhatsApp or iMessage). If targeted information were detected, its existence and, potentially, its source would be revealed to the agencies; otherwise, little or no information would leave the client device.
CSS evangelists claim that it’s a win-win proposition: providing a solution to the encryption v public safety debate by offering privacy (unimpeded end-to-end encryption) and the ability to successfully investigate serious crime. What’s not to like? Plenty, says an academic paper by some of the world’s leading computer security experts published last week.
The drive behind the CSS lobbying is that the scanning software be installed on all smartphones rather than installed covertly on the devices of suspects or by court order on those of ex-offenders. Such universal deployment would threaten the security of law-abiding citizens as well as lawbreakers. And even though CSS still allows end-to-end encryption, this is moot if the message has already been scanned for targeted content before it was dispatched. Similarly, while Apple’s implementation of the technology simply scans for images, it doesn’t take much to imagine political regimes scanning text for names, memes, political views and so on.
In reality, CSS is a technology for what in the security world is called “bulk interception”. Because it would give government agencies access to private content, it should really be treated like wiretapping and regulated accordingly. And in jurisdictions where bulk interception is already prohibited, bulk CSS should be prohibited as well.
In the longer view of the evolution of digital technology, though, CSS is just the latest step in the inexorable intrusion of surveillance devices into our lives. The trend that started with reading our emails, moved on to logging our searches and our browsing clickstreams, mining our online activity to create profiles for targeting advertising at us and using facial recognition to allow us into our offices now continues by breaching the home with “smart” devices relaying everything back to motherships in the “cloud” and, if CSS were to be sanctioned, penetrating right into our pockets, purses and handbags. That leaves only one remaining barrier: the human skull. But, rest assured, Elon Musk undoubtedly has a plan for that too.
What I’ve been reading
Wheels within wheels I’m not an indoor cyclist but if I were, The Counterintuitive Mechanics of Peloton Addiction, a confessional blogpost by Anne Helen Petersen, might give me pause.
Get out of here The Last Days of Intervention is a long and thoughtful essay in Foreign Affairs by Rory Stewart, one of the few British politicians who always talked sense about Afghanistan.
The insider Blowing the Whistle on Facebook Is Just the First Step is a bracing piece by Maria Farrell in the Conversationalist about the Facebook whistleblower.
As 2020 drew to a close, Scott Morrison may have looked towards 2021 with a sense of optimism. But Covid-19 had other ideas, and Australia’s attention was soon fixed upon combating the deadly new Delta strain. This year has been marked by multi-state lockdowns, border closures and a fraught vaccination rollout, leaving the population exhausted. But as Australia nervously enters a new phase of normalcy (Omicron-permitting), there remain policy issues on the other side of the roadmap that demand attention.
Boosting educational standards, reconciling our history with our First Nations people and our unhealthy reliance on a small handful of big tech firms areon the government’s priority list. Other issues, including conserving Australia’s environment, and addressing poverty and entrenched economic inequality, are worthy of any vision to “build back better”.
These books tackle these big issues and provide constructive ideas for the road ahead.
On Money, by Rick Morton
Rick Morton has carved out an impressive career in an industry that he describes as an elite cultural institution. Having grown up in poverty, Morton knows first-hand that the entry price for opportunity is not equal for everyone. For some like Morton – who grew up with nothing and had nothing to fall back on – every day is a fight for survival, and he describes the “cognitive tax” that this imposes on the nation’s poorest. Often one financial mishap, traumatic event or bad decision can kickstart a lifetime of cascading consequences; a reality that isn’t always understood by those born with privilege, who are afforded the “time and space” that money provides.
These consequences, Morton explains, place heavy burdens on tired bodies and on impoverished brains. He writes fondly of his weary mother who, having spent a life doing constant mental arithmetic, of “lifting and scraping and effort, effort, effort”, is old beyond her 60 years. Extrapolate this weariness across the 700,000 Australians that the Productivity Commission estimates live in persistent disadvantage and it’s clear that the lifelong physical and mental health costs of economic inequality demand urgent intervention.
Morton identifies the tangle of welfare systems and institutions, of political pledges and punishments, that has created an environment where attitudes towards people living in poverty have shifted towards using money as a measure of moral character and worth.
On Money meticulously describes the implications of financial hardship and the policies that exacerbate it through the eyes of someone who has lived it. It’s a piercing and personal piece, a deeper look at how his experiences as a child (recounted in his brilliant memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt) shaped his relationship with money. It perfectly explores how a life spent choosing from a “restricted buffet” can cause damage across generations.
Rick Morton is a national treasure and On Money is a shining gem of insight into systemic inequality. We are all richer for his work.
She Is Haunted, by Paige Clark
Allen & Unwin
Melbourne’s Paige Clark has burst on to the literary scene with her debut collection of 18 short stories. She Is Haunted is an ethereal work that deftly explores relationships, loss and grief. Clark, who is third-generation Chinese American and first-generation Australian, weaves her own experience of the transnational identity via excruciatingly relatable characters. Each story is written with a piercing dry wit, entwined with pathos-laden gut punches. Most of Clark’s protagonists are women, and in a year when the voices of Australian women were given prominence, She Is Haunted is a timely, refreshing and deeply intimate experience.
Clark’s writing is spare but her attention to the minutiae of life is evocative. She has interwoven the mystical and the mundane, depicting the surreal and the ordinary throughout the lives of her characters, who are all fallible but mostly sympathetic. A widowed woman self-soothes with clothes left behind, transforming physically into her late husband to avoid grieving his loss. A Woman in Love is split from her beloved and elderly dog after her marriage ends. High-jinks ensue as she embarks on a “dog-napping” escapade so she can clone the toothless chihuahua, but we are privy to a past of devastating genetic testing results and the comfort the dog brought. A woman and her partner voluntarily undergo removal of their left frontal cortex to withstand oppressive heat wrought by a heating planet: indeed, menacing hints of climate change stalk many of Clark’s stories.
She Is Haunted is a like a cosmic prism through which readers can view life and death. Spirits and the spiritual haunt carefully crafted vignettes, windows into souls that are grieving, bargaining, lost, jealous. While loss and death are constant throughout the book, Clark’s nimble prose keeps readers curious, with surprising deviations crafted within each chapter.
Paige Clark has created a dazzling debut. We look forward to what’s in store from this talented young Australian author.
System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot, by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami and Jeremy Weinstein
It’s been a big year for big tech. While negotiating new media laws, Facebook banned Australian news sites, the ban reaching well beyond news to government and not-for-profit pages. Anti-vaxxers used the internet to spread health misinformation. And the world was confronted with the terrifying power of social media used to mobilise the attack on the US Capitol building.
Considering these incidents, governments around the world face a significant challenge: how to regulate an industry that runs faster than the rules can be made.
While many books have tried to capture the sisyphean task facing policymakers in regulating big tech, few have succeeded as well as System Error.
The three authors outline how the often-libertarian beliefs of technology professionals lead to unregulated technology markets that come into conflict with democratic ideals. Many of these issues stem from an optimisation mindset, built into computer programmers and the startup elite at university. Technologists see their job as solving the problem in the most efficient way. But siloed development means no one’s asking if it’s a problem worth solving, let alone if there are negative side-effects.
Where some books take a “democracy good, big tech bad” approach, it’s the nuance and complexity of System Error that holds it above other offerings. The book explores the all-pervasive nature of big tech that touches every aspect of the democratic process. Lobbying against privacy and media laws, the impact of the gig economy and the increasing monopolies of the big five are just some examples given here. But the book also shares the lessons big tech can teach governments about agility in times of crisis – including how to make a Covid-tracing app that people might use.
Although System Error is written from a US perspective, the book highlights the need for a global approach to regulating big tech. After all, these companies may be based in the US but their effects are felt worldwide.
Australia might be well placed to test some of the recommendations, as a middle-power, English-speaking country relying on globalisation. In fact, Australia’s media content laws trying to extract revenue from Google and Facebook are exactly that, on a small scale. The authors also point out that few policymakers have technological backgrounds. As a starting point, Australia needs more digital experts in parliament and the public service.
A book on technological policy might sound like a dry read: this one’s not. The authors spin a compelling argument that has implications for all of us. You might think twice the next time you click “like”.
The School, by Brendan James Murray
In the opening lines of The School, Brendan James Murray observes: “Schools are haunted. Ghost children flitter and lurk and whisper … no latest initiative, no departmental ‘best practice’ will exorcise them.”
Politicians and policymakers talk a lot about schools but how well do most of us know what goes on inside them? Are we brave enough to look beyond the facade to the tangled web of social expectations, bureaucratic improvement plans and complicated human currents that course through the classrooms and corridors, spilling out into the playground?
The School is a powerful story about a notional year in the life of a teacher. Murray draws on his experience as an English and literature teacher at “The School”, a modest suburban secondary school on the edge of Port Phillip Bay, where he happened to spend his own days as a student.
As Murray warns us at the outset: “You will find these pages cluttered with souls jostling for your attention. That is the reality of teaching.” These souls are vividly rendered, their voices urgent.
Murray writes compellingly about the burden of obligation – and the genuine gratitude – he feels towards his students, and the excitement of shepherding them towards new understandings. Nobody could read this account without reflecting on how profound an impact a good teacher can have on the lives of students.
But this is no sentimental yarn. Murray reveals his frustration at the lack of resources at The School to tackle sometimes shocking levels of adolescent illiteracy, the heavy toll on young lives of poor physical and mental health, the radiating legacy of family trauma, the ease with which social cruelty and physical violence can be inflicted in the schoolyard, and the seeming indifference of a small handful of colleagues.
But Murray resists the temptation to lay blame at the feet of the usual cast of villains: cynical politicians, heartless bureaucrats, neglectful parents, a few bad teachers or troubled students. It is refreshing to read an account that acknowledges that these challenges are difficult and defy simple explanation.
It is impossible to read this book without feeling a deep sense of obligation – and motivation – to keep asking what more, or what else, can we do to honour the ghost children who walk the grounds of The School.
Truth-Telling, by Henry Reynolds
The Uluru statement from the heart speaks with the powerfully united voice of First Nations Australians and calls on all Australians to tell the truth about our history.
It is nearly 250 years since the arrival of the British, and yet in many ways we are still resisting the truth of our past.
In his new bookHenry Reynolds makes an important contribution to this truth-telling process, drawing on his long career as an Australian historian.
The book is a piece of revisionist history that begins in 1788, and carefully steps through the legal concepts of sovereignty and property law within the context of the international law at the time, laying bare how the “scale of the expropriation was without precedent”.
Reynolds presents a wealth of evidence, including letters from the colonial office in London – which oversaw the colonial affairs of Britain – that demonstrates how the colonists’ violence and legal overreach went beyond what even the colonial office deemed acceptable.
Documents show that the British government had acknowledged that First Nations Australians were proprietors. Yet this did not stop the land theft by colonists in Australia.
Britain claimed the benefits of the sovereignty it asserted over the land, first in New South Wales, “which would have been found illegitimate in international law”. But the British did not always uphold their responsibility that came with that – which was to provide protection from harm to all sovereign subjects, including Indigenous Australians.
Instead, Reynolds argues that the British “turned their back on the tradition of treaty-making fully conscious of what they were doing”. The British government had created a situation where “tension could only be relieved by violence”.
A common refrain about Australia’s past is that colonisation, while brutal, “was acceptable behaviour at the time”. Truth-Telling demands that Australians face up to the real truth of our past. Only then can we genuinely engage with the Uluru statement from the heart and move forward firmly and constructively.
The Winter Road, by Kate Holden
Black Inc Books
On a stretch of dirt road in outback NSW, 78-year-old farmer Ian Turnbull raised his hunting rifle and aimed. The first shot knocked Glen Turner, a state environmental officer, to one knee.
As dusk fell on Croppa Creek, Turner and his workmate dived behind their ute, pleading with Turnbull to no avail. In desperation, Turner turned to run. Once more, a shot echoed over the cleared farmland, this time striking Turner in the back. “I’m going home to wait for the police,” the elderly farmer said as he stepped into his ute. He drove off, leaving Turner dead in the arms of his partner.
Australia’s history with our land – the clash between farmers wanting to clear and work it, and those seeking to preserve it – runs deep.
Equal parts crime and history, The Winter Road is a gripping tale of legacy, land and the killing at Croppa Creek.
Using the July 2014 murder of Glen Turner as a launching point, Kate Holden dives into the events that led to the shooting and the history that preceded it. The tension between Turner, a government official intent on enforcing environmental regulations, and Turnbull, a farmer who believes in the right to treat his property as he wishes, speaks to broad ideas of ownership and government, of exploitation and preservation.
The result is a meticulously researched look at the continuing tug of war between land ownership, inheritance, enforcement and preservation efforts in Australia. The Winter Road raises fundamental questions about the give-and-take relationship Australians have with the land – from First Nations ideals of continuity and preservation to European notions of taming the land through work. It highlights the complex nature of the laws that govern land and the dangers that those tasked with enforcing protection can face.
By deftly explaining the history behind invasion, settlement and the traditions of preservation and farming, Holden tells a uniquely Australian tale. It captures deep and difficult questions about exploitation of the land we live on, and how it relates to our history, laws and society.
The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.
NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers’ access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.
“Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations,” an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. “To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case.”
The Israel-based company, recently sanctioned by the US for allegedly offering its intrusion software to repressive regimes and sued by both Apple and Meta’s (Facebook’s) WhatsApp for allegedly supporting the hacking their customers, says that it will cooperate with any relevant government authority and pass on what it learns from its investigation of the incident.
The spyware company insisted it is unaware of the targets designated by customers using its software.
“To clarify, the installation of our software by the customer occurs via phone numbers. As stated before, NSO’s technologies are blocked from working on US (+1) numbers,” NSO’s spokesperson said. “Once the software is sold to the licensed customer, NSO has no way to know who the targets of the customers are, as such, we were not and could not have been aware of this case.”
According to Reuters, affected State Department personnel were based in Uganda or were focused on matters related to that country and so had phone numbers with a foreign country prefix rather than the US prefix.
On November 23rd, when Apple announced its lawsuit against the NSO Group, the iPhone maker also said that it will notify iPhone customers targeted by state-sponsored hacking. That same day, Norbert Mao, a lawyer and President of the Democratic Party in Uganda, posted on Twitter that he’d received an Apple threat notification.
In June, the Washington Post reported that NSO’s Pegasus software was implicated in the attempted or successful hacking of 37 phones belonging to journalists and rights advocates, including two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report said the findings undermined NSO Group’s claims that its software was only licensed for fighting terrorists and for law enforcement.
That same month, the NSO Group published its 2021 Transparency and Responsibility Report [PDF], in which the company insists its software is used exclusively for use against groups that have few allies like terrorists, criminals, and pedophiles.
“Myth: Pegasus is a mass surveillance tool,” the report says. “Fact: Data is collected only from individual, pre-identified suspected criminals and terrorists.”
A US State Department spokesperson declined The Register’s request to confirm the Reuters report but said the State Department takes its responsibility to safeguard its information seriously. We were also told that the Biden-Harris Administration is working to limit the use of digital tools of repression.
NSO Group maintains that it has turned away $300m in revenue to date based on unresolved human rights concerns and that, between May 2020 and April 2021, it rejected 15 per cent of new business opportunities for the same reason.
The company, which does not name its customers in its Transparency and Responsibility Report but includes numerous unattributed endorsement quotations about its products, has not yet published documents that allow its claims to be verified. ®
The 3D-printed implants were shown to speed up the healing of wounds and could be adapted to regenerate different tissues in the body.
A new study led by researchers at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences indicates that wound healing could be improved by replicating a key component of our blood.
Researchers focused on platelet-rich plasma (PRP), which is a natural healing substance in our blood. They extracted PRP from the blood of patients with complex skin wounds and manipulated the PRP through 3D-printing to create a tissue-repair implant.
This implant could be administered to a difficult-to-treat skin wound in a single surgical procedure.
Results suggested that the implant could help to speed up wound healing by improving the development of new blood vessels and inhibiting the formation of scarring, which are both essential for a wound to heal effectively.
This indicates an improvement over the PRP already present in our blood, according to Prof Fergal O’Brien of RCSI, as natural PRP helps wounds to heal but scarring can still occur.
“By 3D-printing PRP into a biomaterial scaffold, we can increase the formation of blood vessels while also avoiding the formation of scars, leading to more successful wound healing.”
O’Brien, who is professor of bioengineering and regenerative medicine at RCSI, believes there are applications for this technology beyond skin wounds.
“This technology can potentially be used to regenerate different tissues, therefore dramatically influencing the ever-growing regenerative medicine, 3D printing and personalised medicine markets.”
The study was led by researchers at the Tissue Engineering Research Group and Science Foundation Ireland’s Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Centre (AMBER), based at RCSI’s Department of Anatomy and Regenerative Medicine.
The team also collaborated with researchers at the University of Minho in Portugal and at Trinity College Dublin’s Centre for Biomedical Engineering.
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