Australian Leader's Stupid Quote About Laws Trumping Math Is Encryption Fight in a Nutshell

Government authorities refuse to consider uncontrollable, dangerous consequences of breaking data privacy.


Malcolm Turnbull and Theresa May

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is getting mocked by the encryption savvy for asserting that the laws of mathematics are subservient to the laws of Australia.

The Australian government is considering legislation that would require online communication companies decrypt messages on demand of law enforcement officials in order to fight crime. The problem is end-to-end encryption blocks companies from decrypting the communications. It's a safety and security measure to make it much harder for people with sinister intentions—either criminals or dangerous governments—to access users' private data.

Turnbull's quote may make him look like an idiot, but the fundamental attitude he's expressing is shared by lawmakers and government officials in other countries, including the United States and England. These people want to deliberately jeopardize everybody's data privacy and security in order to serve the demands for information by law enforcement and the intelligence community.

Government officials have been wanting to force "back doors" into encryption so that they can get access to data in order to fight crime and terrorism. But there's no such thing as a back door that only the government can access.

Once there is a key to break encryption, it can be (and frequently has been) either discovered or reverse engineered by others. Furthermore, no single government, no matter how powerful it is, has the ability to prevent new, unheard of encryption tools from becoming available for criminals and terrorists to access. The inevitable outcome would be average users of commonly distributed communication apps having their data compromised, and actual criminals finding new ways to keep their communications secret.

In this context, Turnbull was asked whether this mathematical reality trumped government's desire to get access on demand to encrypted communication. His response:

"Well the laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia."

We should actually appreciate the blunt stupidity of Turnbull's response, because it highlights how stubbornly unwilling government officials have been in recognizing the actual consequences of their proposals. We've seen it from American senators on both the left and the right like Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Richard Burr (R-North Carolina). We've seen it from British Prime Minister Theresa May's administration.

Throughout this encryption fight we have seen government and law enforcement officials lean on their power to legally demand access to information with warrants and investigatory tools in a bid for the authority to compromise everybody's security. The quote from Turnbull vividly demonstrates their belief that the existence of a government law outweighs consideration of other consequences.

The quote should be used as a rhetorical weapon against the likes of Feinstein and May to force them (and law enforcement representatives) to deal with the dangerous consequences of the laws they propose.