Loki

, The Assistance and Access Bill 2018: One year later

The Assistance and Access Bill 2018: One year later

Note: This is an updated post on another blog we wrote on this subject last year. It has been updated and edited to reflect recent events.

It’s been around a year since the Australian Parliament tabled, and hurriedly passed, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 (Otherwise known as the AA Bill, or TOLA). This bill sought to give Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies powers to compel Australian tech and telecommunication companies to do any number of things, such as:

(a)  removing one or more forms of electronic protection that are or were applied by, or on behalf of, the provider; or

(b)  providing technical information; or

(c)  installing, maintaining, testing or using software or equipment; or

(d)  ensuring that information obtained in connection with the execution of a warrant or authorisation is given in a particular format; or

(f)  assisting with the testing, modification, development or maintenance of a technology or capability; or

(h)  modifying, or facilitating the modification of, any of the characteristics of a service provided by the designated communications provider; or

(j)  an act or thing done to conceal the fact that anything has been done covertly in the performance of a function, or the exercise of a power, conferred by a law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory, so far as the function or power relates to:

(i)  enforcing the criminal law and laws imposing pecuniary penalties; or

(ii)  assisting the enforcement of the criminal laws in force in a foreign country; or

(iii)  the interests of Australia’s national security, the interests of Australia’s foreign relations or the interests of Australia’s national economic well-being.

Pretty scary stuff, huh? We thought so too. We’ve been tracking the progress of the bill as it has been brought into law, along with related developments, over the last year. We have analysed the bill and its effects to work out what the implications might be for software companies both inside and outside of Australia, and especially for Loki.

TOLA gives Australian agencies the ability to issue 3 types of notices to ‘communications service providers.’ The definition of ‘provider’ in the legislation is very broad. Almost anyone that provides any service or product that involves the internet could fall under its scope. The notices that can be issued range in scope and obligation. There are three types: Technical Assistance Requests (TARs), Technical Assistance Notices (TANs), and Technical Capability Notices (TCNs). The latter is a legally enforced instruction to create or modify features to give an agency a new technical capability. Although this notice must come from the Attorney General of Australia, the scope for new espionage tools to be created by this notice is extremely broad.

The scariest thing about this bill is the penalties given to providers who leak information about the investigation or notice, or refuse to comply with the notice. Jail sentences as long as 10 years could apply to whistleblowers, and given that these notices can be issued to companies and individuals that provide services to Australians, they could be issued to almost anyone around the world. With strong extradition treaties, this legislation could reach people across the nations of the Five Eyes Alliance (UK, US, AU, NZ, CA) and beyond. Some people, myself included, strongly suspect that this is a coordinated effort by the Five Eyes alliance to gain access to the world’s most popular applications, as the UK recently passed an amendment to the already controversial Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 which made it quite closely aligned with Australia’s new legislation. They even use similar terms, with the main similarity being the Technical Capability Notice.

Thankfully, TOLA does explicitly state that these notices cannot be used to force a company to break its own encryption, introduce security flaws, or deliberately ignore existing flaws. It also explicitly says that these notices cannot be used to introduce a ‘systemic weakness’ into the product or service. There were a great many concerns about the definition of ‘systemic weakness’ being too vague in the legislation. The final amendment to the bill gave us the following definitions:

systemic vulnerability means a vulnerability that affects a whole class of technology, but does not include a vulnerability that is selectively introduced to one or more target technologies that are connected with a particular person. For this purpose, it is immaterial whether the person can be identified.

systemic weakness means a weakness that affects a whole class of technology, but does not include a weakness that is selectively introduced to one or more target technologies that are connected with a particular person. For this purpose, it is immaterial whether the person can be identified.

target technology :

                    (a) for the purposes of this Part, a particular carriage service, so far as the service is used, or is likely to be used, (whether directly or indirectly) by a particular person, is a target technology that is connected with that person; and

                    (b) for the purposes of this Part, a particular electronic service, so far as the service is used, or is likely to be used, (whether directly or indirectly) by a particular person, is a target technology that is connected with that person; and

                    (c) for the purposes of this Part, particular software installed, or to be installed, on:

                             (i) a particular computer; or

                            (ii) a particular item of equipment;

                           used, or likely to be used, (whether directly or indirectly) by a particular person is a target technology that is connected with that person; and

                    (d) for the purposes of this Part, a particular update of software that has been installed on:

                             (i) a particular computer; or

                            (ii) a particular item of equipment;

                           used, or likely to be used, (whether directly or indirectly) by a particular person is a target technology that is connected with that person; and

                    (e) for the purposes of this Part, a particular item of customer equipment used, or likely to be used, (whether directly or indirectly) by a particular person is a target technology that is connected with that person; and

                     (f) for the purposes of this Part, a particular data processing device used, or likely to be used, (whether directly or indirectly) by a particular person is a target technology that is connected with that person.

For the purposes of paragraphs (a), (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f), it is immaterial whether the person can be identified.

What this effectively means is that providers cannot be forced to make changes to their products which negatively affect every user of that product. Instead, they can only be ordered to create the means by which weaknesses or vulnerabilities could be selectively injected into a specific product in use by a specific targeted person. This seems like a fairly weak capability in terms of consumer applications, but could be used to great effect in the context of internet service providers and other telecommunication companies.

TOLA provides the legislative authority for agencies to create and install monitoring tools and other intrusive mechanisms into all kinds of software and hardware. For this iteration of the bill, these tools can only be switched on and used to target crimes with minimum sentences of 3 years or more. However, there is nothing to say that won’t change in the future, and very little juducial or public oversight is required by this bill in its current form. It is also extremely problematic that these tools will even exist in the first place. If they fall into the wrong hands, the effects will be devastating. The NSA in the US developed a range of surveillance techniques that were eventually leaked and used against American interests by criminals and foreign governments, and the same will likely happen here.

The introduction of TOLA and its UK equivalent means that applications such as WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger, Gmail, and other popular communications medium can be silently turned into a monitoring device for ASIO, ASDS, AFP, GCHQ, MI5, and so on. The companies behind these products can’t utter a peep about these notices or their repercussions, or otherwise warn their users. Companies are even given protections to indemnify themselves against any civil cases caused by any later discovery of eroded privacy.

This bill does not require these companies to break the encryption of their systems, at least not system-wide, but there are plenty of other things these agencies could force companies to create and install, such as tools that would allow them to remotely pull information from a specific user’s device post-encryption, or gain access to these services’ servers where treasure troves of metadata could be harvested. Every ‘private’ messaging application out there could now be forced to send data back to intelligence agencies about who is communicating to who and when the communications are taking place.

We will not know how widely these powers will be deployed until the first annual report is released. All it takes is one TCN for each of Facebook, Google, and WhatsApp, and the vast majority of ‘private’ communications will be corruptible at the whim of the UK/Australian Intelligence and Law Enforcement community. The information that these entities can gather from this can easily be shared across the Five Eyes Alliance, effectively giving these tools to the governments of the entire English-speaking world.

The Australian Government’s Department of Home Affairs has sought to ‘debunk’ various ‘myths and misconceptions’ about TOLA on their website: https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/about-us/our-portfolios/national-security/lawful-access-telecommunications/myths-assistance-access-act

This response does nothing to address the fundamental concerns at play. It is essentially listing its own flaws and then hand-waving them away. Recent history has shown that legislation such as this will lead to scope creep, vulnerabilities leaked and used against us, information revealed where it shouldn’t be, and irreparable damage to the reputation of the Australian tech sector.

I welcome proposed amendments to improve judicial oversight, clarify definitions, and protect journalists in their efforts to defend the public interest, but there is still nothing on the table to close this can of worms.

For advocates of digital privacy such as myself, TOLA is yet another example of where we are heading if we continue to rely on trusted systems provided by major corporations. Legislation like this should come as no surprise. Where this data can be collected, it will be collected, and this bill only strengthens the need to shift the paradigm in communication tools so that they are decentralised, open source and private by default. If we succeed, laws such as these can’t dissolve our ability to collectively access private spaces online. I have said this before, but access to these online spaces is critical to a healthy 21st century democracy, and our governments are too quick to dismiss the need for widespread digital security.

How TOLA affects Loki

Our analysis of the bill and its amendments lead us to the following conclusions:

  • With the addition of the amendment defining ‘systemic weakness,’ any modification to the Loki source code that gives authorities new capabilities would certainly be classed as a systemic weakness. Thus, we believe it is a near-impossibility that we would be forced to implement any privacy degrading code into the software that we release to the public.
  • It is possible that we may be forced to develop an alternative client software for authorities to use, with additional data collecting features (or something of the sort). Thankfully, given that the Loki network is regulated by Service Nodes, the authorities would still need to own more than 40% of the entire Service Node network to effectively institute widespread surveillance. Given our economic assumptions as outlined in our Cryptoeconomics proposal, this is likely to be prohibitively expensive for the government, particularly if the usage of Loki is high enough to merit the government issuing a TCN in the first place.
  • As long as we are able to keep our code open source, we can guarantee that our code will always be auditable. As such, it may make sense to go over our existing licenses and convert them to GPLv3 to prevent closed source software derived from our implementation from appearing. We will require written permission from the copyright holders of the projects we have forked in order to achieve this.
  • As Loki is a decentralised system with extensive privacy protections, there is very little we as the Loki team could do to de-anonymise our users even if we were compelled to do so. The extent of the information we might be able to provide to authorities comprises known attacks such as DPI and traffic shape correlation, however we don’t have any more information at hand than any other node operator on the network. This means that if we are issued a notice, we won’t be of much use to these agencies anyway.

The chances that Loki will eventually be issued a notice are fairly high, however such a notice would not result in compromising the privacy that our system provides.

The same cannot be said of other communication platforms, where the service provider has central control over the data being transported. Your phone number is attached to your WhatsApp and Signal accounts, and all of the metadata that you create is now up for grabs. The case for a system like Loki has never been stronger. Only by decentralising the routing and storage of messages and data can digital communications become truly private under this new legislation.

What you can do to stay private on the internet

With this new legislation, it is more important than ever for us to understand and be vigilant about our privacy on the internet. Wherever practical, using open source software is a good start to protecting one’s privacy. Open source software is much more trustworthy than closed source applications as the code is generally reviewed by people from all over the world. If any backdoors or questionable features are added to this software, alarm bells should be ringing shortly afterwards.

Whenever possible, you should also always build the open source software you are using from source. This will remove the need for another layer of trust, as you’ll know the application you build is running exactly what is in the codebase you want to use. Nothing more, nothing less. It is entirely possible that modified versions of applications can be put in place instead of the real ones if a notice compels a developer to do so. Reproducible builds help to mitigate this, and this is something we are now striving towards, but it is your responsibility to check you didn’t get served a fake version of the application you want to use.

VPNs are a decent first step in protecting network privacy, but this legislation could severely undermine their utility. If the VPN provider you use is compelled to install monitoring systems in their service, you might just be handing your browsing and connection information directly to the authorities — and be none the wiser.

A better approach is to use some sort of onion routing system. Tor is the current most popular software for this, but you should also try Lokinet. The advantage of Lokinet is that you’ll be able to use essentially any program you like straight out of the box (Lokinet is both TCP and UDP friendly). You’ll enjoy low latency, and a dedicated network of incentivised nodes that you can reasonably trust to not be largely comprised of nodes run by surveillance agencies.

I hope this article has clarified the situation around TOLA and its implications for Loki, and given you some insight into why decentralised privacy is so important. If you’d like to follow what we’re doing at Loki, head to https://loki.network.