Inspired by the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, Malcolm Turnbull has proposed a new cybersecurity law to circumvent encryption – and he won’t be beaten by maths
Mathematicians around the world are rushing to check millennia of calculations, as the Australian prime minister Malcom Turnbull has explained that their discoveries aren’t as concrete as we thought.
“The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia,” said Turnbull.
Turnbull’s comments came as he proposed a new law to force tech companies to give security services access to encrypted messages. Apps like WhatsApp currently prevent any snoopers from reading your messages using end-to-end encryption, jumbling it up in such a way that only the recipient can de-jumble it.
This form of encryption is underpinned by complex mathematics that can’t simply be overturned by an eavesdropper, whether that’s Whatsapp itself, a government agency, criminals, or anyone else. For security services that are trying to get access to messages sent by suspected terrorists this can be problematic, but encryption cannot be weakened for terrorists unless it is weakened for everyone.
However, this has not stopped governments from trying. The UK home secretary Amber Rudd has previously called encryption “completely unacceptable” and the UK prime minister Theresa May has said that the big internet companies give terrorists “safe spaces” to communicate.
In November 2016, the UK parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act that put into legislation the ability to force companies to remove encryption. But how that will work in practice is far from clear.
Encryption isn’t just used for messaging apps. Online shopping, for example, would be impossible without the ability to send digital information in a way that can’t just be intercepted.
Taking Turnbull’s comments to their logical conclusion, Pythagoras’s Theorem could be in jeopardy if enough votes are cast in parliament, and we could boost the fight against climate change by repealing the law of conservation of energy.
Where will it end? Only a few months ago New Scientist called for politicians to gain a greater understanding of technology. Perhaps the first lesson on their timetable should be to study a bit of mathematical history.
When the ancient Greek mathematician Hippasus proved that √2 couldn’t be written as a fraction, he was drowned at sea by the Pythagoreans as it didn’t chime with their views. But two and half thousand years later, it is still true, regardless of ideological opinion. The laws of mathematics are here to stay forever, whether politicians like it or not.
We have corrected what Hippasus proved
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