Tech //

Weapons-grade research

Victoria Zerbst on how the Defence Trade Controls Act could impact academia

It doesn’t seem outlandish to laud tertiary education as a weapon against ignorance, dogma and cognitive inertia. Yet, while studies in philosophy have certainly offered a shield from bias and intellectual firearms to unleash during verbal combat, it would seem absurd to receive a prison sentence for bringing Occam’s Razor onto an airplane.

There are, however, areas of academia that are broadly defined as weapons by the Australian Department of Defence. Many fields in science and information technology are considered “dual-use” (designed or suitable for both civilian and military purposes) by the government and are defined as “strategic goods” in the Defence and Strategic Goods List (DSGL). These areas include biotechnology, quantum computing, optical telecommunications, robotics and, the main one, cryptography.

In April this year, the 2015 amendments to the Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) came into effect with the goal to “control the transfer of defence and strategic goods technologies.” There are now offences for persons who do not follow military protocol or have a permit or approval to supply DSGL technology. These persons could very easily be academics.

Luke O’Connor is a former security lecturer in the fields of computing and mathematics who completed his PhD in cryptography at the University of Waterloo. He explains cryptography as “a collection of topics to do with protecting information from people that you don’t want to be able to see this information – it’s data control.”

This control is particularly important now, when internet use is pervasive, and people can send information freely and easily. “Encryption is what gives you the protection on top of the connectivity, so you can create private channels over the internet,” O’Connor explains.

An article published in The Conversation last month suggested that “researchers and innovators who communicate any new idea overseas without permission could face ten years in prison and $400,000 in fines.”

Luke Anderson is a PhD candidate and information security lecturer at the University of Sydney School of IT. “The trade controls don’t cover things which are already considered to be public knowledge. So if it’s RSA, some sort of public encryption algorithm is fine, no worries. Where it comes in and starts affecting me is if I start inventing something new,” he explains.

Yet in a field marked by constant change, Anderson is concerned that the new laws, which he describes as “vague”, could be applied to something he or his colleagues might seek to teach. As Anderson puts it, “They [the government] can be like, ‘that was actually private information, you shouldn’t have disseminated that’. And it’s actually specifically disseminating it to foreign nationals. Because my class is full of international students, I can’t talk about it in my class now, I can’t talk about new developments, without first of all making sure – are they in the public domain, are they normally accessible, are they above this certain level of encryption? If I fail to do that, if I actually want to show them something cool and new that hasn’t actually been publicised yet, they can chuck me in jail for 20 years.”

While the Defence Trade Controls Act was initiated to align Australia’s policy with international laws, both the US and UK have protections for public research and education.

For Anderson, his qualms with the act focus less on the fear of persecution and more on the law’s damaging impact on innovation. “It really stifles creativity. It stifles interaction and it stifles collaboration. Stomping on something with policy is this government’s default go-to action. Unfortunately it hurts the industry, and it hurts progress.”

O’Connor believes it will take a long time until people actually realise what they have to comply with. “Traditionally these types of laws have not gone down very well, so they normally go through a couple of stages – disbelief, a lot of outcry for being enacted, then people may start to tentatively comply, and then maybe even they start to comply significantly, at great cost and inconvenience”.

He believes the first prosecution will be the litmus test to see how the legislation actually plays out. “In the end we have to hope we have smart lawyers who can argue these cases.”

Even though it might be a while before we see our professors jailed for disseminating new information, these laws stand at odds with Turnbull’s focus on technological innovation. While it is impossible to ignore the changing landscape of military intelligence, it is important that policy-makers allow for academic freedom and ensure the security of academics teaching Security.

Additional reporting by Sam Langford.

Art by Frankie Hossack.