Australian academics who teach mathematics may need to run new ideas by the Department of Defence before sharing them or risk imprisonment.
Some academics are set to become much more familiar with the department’s Defence Export Control Office (DECO), a unit that enforces the Defence Trade Control Act 2012, Australia’s end of a 2007 pact with the US and UK over defence trade.
Until recently, DECO only regulated physically exported weapons and so-called “dual use” items such as encryption, computing hardware and biological matter.
However in March the act was updated to include “intangible supply”, which is intended to prohibit the transfer of knowledge from Australia that could be used to produce weapons.
From November 2016 Australian academics could face a potential 10-year prison term for sending information overseas if their ideas fall within the Defence Strategic Goods List (DSGL). Put another way, they could be jailed for delivering online course material to foreign students or providing international peers with access to a server hosting that material.
Academics like Kevin Korb are nervous that “overly broad” definitions in the DSGL could land them in court for teaching cryptography, high performance computing, image and signals processing and a number of other fields.
To avoid penalty, researchers may need to report newly hatched lines of inquiry to DECO.
“You will be coming to us and we will be working with you,” a DECO officer recently explained to academics. “When your ideas aren’t necessarily that formed, it may be that we say to you, ‘Look, at the moment we don’t see any concern, come back to us at a further stage’.”
Defence said the new rules are necessary to stop the wrong technology falling into the hands of states or groups of proliferation concern.
“While the sensitive items are used for legitimate civilian research by Australian researchers, they can also be used for the proliferation of military, nuclear, chemical or biological weapons,” a Defence spokesperson told Fairfax Media.
Korb, an artificial intelligence researcher at Monash University’s Information Technology faculty, said the new restrictions will “suffocate” research.
“Researchers and students are already leaving or avoiding Australia,” he told Fairfax.
How risky are the technologies covered by DSGL? Monash University mathematics lecturer Daniel Mathews recently argued in The Conversation that DSGL definitions are loose enough to make teaching division a potential crime.
The list also includes very weak encryption – for example, 512-bit key length of the RSA algorithm, also known as “export grade encryption” due to long abandoned US restrictions on shipping software with strong encryption.
Don’t blame Defence for including weak encryption in DSGL though. Defence told Fairfax that Australia inherited its encryption specifications from the Wassenaar Arrangement, a pact between 41 nations to prevent the proliferation of weapons.
Under the 2007 treaty, Australia and the UK agreed to introduce rough equivalents of the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). All three nations now restrict the intangible supply of controlled items and exempt “basic” research. But critics say the harshness of Australia’s law could trigger an exodus of academics.
“What is likely to happen is that Australia becomes isolated as the research and the researchers move elsewhere. No one wants to work somewhere where there’s totalitarian-like controls on thought,” renowned US cryptographer Bruce Schneier told Fairfax.
Schneier said Australia was out of sync with US regulations, which don’t come close to “potentially criminalising mathematics”.
Professor Alan Woodward, a UK-based security researcher at the University of Surry’s computing department had “qualified concerns” about Australia’s law.
“I would hope that the [Australian] authorities understand the ramifications if they do start to ask academic researchers to be licensed. That would not be a good idea in my opinion,” he told Fairfax.
“The UK’s Export Controls Law specifically exempts ordinary academic activity. The Australian law specifically includes both industrial and academic research, ordinary or otherwise,” said Korb.
The law may require Vanessa Teague, a research fellow at The University of Melbourne who has helped improve the security of NSW’s online voting system iVote, to seek a permit from DECO to continue her work.
Ahead of NSW’s March election Teague and a researcher at the University of Michigan discovered weaknesses in iVote that could allow an attacker, under certain conditions, to manipulate votes. The cause was an encryption bug known as “FREAK” that could be used to downgrade a secure connection to US “export grade encryption”.
“The exemption for ‘basic research’ doesn’t help because so much Australian cryptography research is applied,” said Teague.
Korb also noted that unlike the UK, Australia’s law doesn’t consider the end-use of a technology – for example, if it is to be used in a weapon of mass destruction.
A Defence spokesperson told Fairfax the exemptions were the result of a two-year consultation with industry and academia overseen by Ian Chubb, Australia’s chief scientist.
One of its main achievements is that academics don’t require a permit to publish research about dual use goods on the DSGL, though the Defence Minister is still able to prohibit publication and any academics who were to breach that would face criminal charges.
“Australia only exempts ordinary publication, not ordinary participation. The amendments brought by Ian Chubb are well-intentioned misfires,” said Korb.
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As the layers get piled on, it’s difficult to remember that the entire terrorism threat is a false creation, just like the Cold War of the 50’s and 60’s. When the media and politicians, not to mention the military and police, act like it’s real, it’s hard for the public to imagine otherwise.
Most people have no idea how the world works behind the scenes. They haven’t read the true history and they don’t want to look.