The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has made public its “most significant operation in policing history”, which primarily relied on using Australia’s encryption laws to access the encrypted communications of criminals.
During a press briefing on Tuesday morning, AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw said the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) gained access to an encrypted application, named Anom, and ran it without the knowledge of the criminal underworld.
With that access, the AFP helped to decrypt and read encrypted communication that was sent over Anom in real time as part of the operation.
“Essentially, we have been in the back pockets of organised crime and operationalised the criminal takedown like we’ve never seen. The use of encrypted communication apps presents significant challenges to law enforcement and Anom has given law enforcement a window into the level of criminality that we have never seen before on this scale,” Kershaw said.
Labelled Operation Ironside, Kershaw said the FBI took the lead on a global online sting operation while Australia provided the “technical capability” to be able to decrypt those messages. Europol was also involved in the operation.
Kershaw explained that access to these encrypted messages was gained lawfully through using the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, usually referred to as the TOLA Act, in combination with legal authority from the FBI.
The controversial TOLA Act allows intelligence and law enforcement agencies to request or demand assistance from communications providers to access encrypted communications.
When asked if the FBI chose to work with Australia due to the TOLA Act providing the legal capability to decrypt those messages rather than the AFP’s technical capability, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison deferred the question to the United States, touting the AFP’s efforts instead.
In light of the operation being made public, Morrison also took the opportunity to flog various Bills currently being considered by Parliament. Among those Bills were the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 and the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (International Production Orders) Bill 2020 (IPO Bill).
“There are a series of pieces of legislation that we’ve been seeking to move through the Parliament, not just over this term, but in some cases, over three terms; they need these powers to do their job. The AFP and our law enforcement agencies and other agencies that support them need the support of our Parliament to continue to do the job that they do to keep Australians safe,” Morrison said at the press briefing.
The first Bill, if passed, would hand the AFP and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) new warrants for dealing with online crime. The latter Bill, meanwhile, would create a framework for Australian agencies to gain access to stored telecommunications data from further foreign designated communication providers in countries that have an agreement with Australia, and vice versa.
Both Bills have received criticism and currently do not have bipartisan support, with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) having labelled the powers that would be given through the surveillance legislation amendment as “wide-ranging and coercive in nature”.
“These powers may adversely impact the privacy of a large number of individuals, including individuals not suspected of involvement in criminal activity, and must therefore be subject to a careful and critical assessment of their necessity, reasonableness, and proportionality,” the OAIC said in March.
In total, the sting operation led to 525 search warrants, 224 individuals being charged, 525 charges in total, six clandestine labs being taken down, and 21 threats to kill being averted. 3.7 tonnes of drugs, 104 firearms and weapons, and over AU$45 million in assets were also seized as part of the operation that commenced three years ago.
Details of how the sting operation first commenced will be announced in San Diego, California tomorrow morning.
Updated at 11:50am AEST, 8 June 2021: made clarification it was the FBI, not the AFP, that first gained access to Anom.
Fintech Australia reckons the government should force open access to NFC
Fintech Australia has asked the government require manufacturers to provide direct access to near-field communication (NFC) payment technology on their devices.
Such a mandate was requested in a submission [PDF] the body representing Australia’s finance technology industry made to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services as part of its inquiry into mobile payment and digital wallet financial services.
“The growth of digital payments encourages greater business competition and innovation, leading to the creation of more tailored products for consumers,” it wrote.
“However, competition in the sector is currently at risk due to the limited number of competing mobile device manufacturers and operating system developers. The limited range of hardware and software solutions play a critical role as the overarching infrastructure for mobile payments.
“In turn, there is a risk that a lack of competition in these sectors will reduce consumer choice and business innovation, as well as increase costs for domestic innovators and startups.”
It said the existing power imbalance between the technology giants and new startups was likely to impact competition and stifle innovation.
The government should support and encourage, Fintech Australia continued, the testing of alternative mobile and wallet payment solutions such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), to bypass the need to access NFC modules on mobile devices.
“BLE removes the need to force hardware manufacturers to open access to their secure components. As a result, the use of BLE provides technology companies and banks with the freedom to develop their own customer experiences for mobile and digital payments without the perceived control of the hardware manufacturers, regardless of the hardware type,” it said.
In addition to asking NFC tech be a free-for-all, Fintech Australia also asked that the government prevent manufacturers from placing restrictions on how payments can be processed.
It wants regulation to be introduced over the terms and pricing practices of major payment and checkout platforms; and the requirement for “fair and transparent collection of consumer data in a balanced manner that does not impact competition”.
The data digital wallet providers collect, Fintech Australia believes, should also be provided to others.
“Data will be beneficial to understand competition and adoption in the sub-sector (similar to the data that AusPayNet compelled the banks to provide on credit card fraud to better understand the banking landscape),” it said. “This data should also be able to be released to the industry (where appropriate) similar to AusPayNet releasing reports on credit card fraud.”
The Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac, the National Australia Bank, and Bendigo and Adelaide Bank had joined forces back in 2016 to go after Apple and its control over its own NFC technology, annoyed that Apple did not allow any other entity direct access to its tech.
The group argued that access would enable them to offer their own integrated digital wallets to iPhone customers in competition with Apple’s digital wallet without using Apple Pay — something Apple wanted to avoid.
The banks lost that fight four years ago, with the ACCC handing down a determination denying authorisation.
Since then, the banks have caved and now offer their customers Apple Pay.
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The RBA, ACCC, Commonwealth Bank, and Google have reignited the conversation around gaining access to Apple’s NFC technology in the name of innovation and boosting competition.
The iPhone maker said there’s plenty of competition where mobile payments are concerned and that Apple Pay is an example of the ‘dynamic competition and innovation that characterises the payments market’ in Australia.
Grab looks to drive electric vehicle adoption with Hyundai Motor
Grab says it has expanded an existing partnership with Hyundai Motor Group to drive the adoption of electric vehicles in Southeast Asia. Both companies will explore pilots to ease the use of such vehicles for Grab drivers and delivery partners, such as offering leasing programmes on a “battery-as-a-service” model.
These initiatives would aim to lower the barriers of entry, including reducing the total cost of ownership, the partners said in a joint statement Tuesday. The alliance would include Hyundai’s affiliate Kia.
Citing a 2020 survey of its drivers, Grab said costs, lack of charging locations, and long wait times to charge vehicles were top concerns that pulled drivers back from adopting electric vehicles. It added that its partnership with Hyundai would aim to address some of these issues through pilots of new service offerings, such as leasing electric vehicles on a car-as-a-service model and electric vehicle financing.
Both partners would jointly develop a roadmap to drive the adoption of such vehicles across Southeast Asia, with the first pilot programs to begin later this year in Singapore, before these were extended to Indonesia and Vietnam.
Plans also were underway to run a feasibility study to glean deeper insights on barriers to the ownership and adoption of electric vehicles. Grab said it hoped the insights could be further tapped by governments and other industry partners to establish policies and best practices to ease daily operations for ride-hailing and delivery drivers.
Partners since 2018, Grab and Hyundai had worked on various electric vehicle tests in the region, including Singapore in 2019, when 200 of Hyundai’s Kona electric vehicle were deployed as part of the GrabRentals fleet. The move was part of a 2018 partnership with SP Group that also analysed usage patterns and behaviours to enhance the accessibility of charging stations, to better match their locations to drivers’ breaks.
Grab also launched electric vehicle initiatives in Indonesia last year, when the GrabCar Elektrik fleet comprising Hyundai’s IONIQ vehicles was introduced at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport. The ride-hailing operator further worked with the Indonesian government to align its roadmap with local policies, as part of efforts to support the country’s aim to have electric vehicles account for 20% of local transportation network by 2025.
According to Grab, 31% of its vehicles available for ride-hailing services in Singapore were electric or hybrid vehicles. The company had invested more than $200 million into such vehicles as part of its GrabRental fleet since 2016.
In a separate statement Tuesday, it said passengers could opt in to donate money towards green projects each time they booked a Grab ride. Calling it the “carbon offset”, the feature would be available in its mobile app for users in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand from next month, when passengers could contribute $0.10 per ride.
Collected amounts would be used to fund various reforestation and conservation projects operated by local non-government organisations, Grab said.
It added that the feature would be expanded to other markets in the region at a later stage.
Human Rights Commission asks NDIS to remember robo-debt in automation push
Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Commissioner Edward Santow has cautioned the federal government against using artificial intelligence in any further decision-making, highlighting the risk to human rights AI can pose.
Santow, speaking on Tuesday about the recently released Human Rights and Technology Report, pointed to the Centrelink online compliance intervention program — of which the automation element became colloquially known as robo-debt — to highlight this risk.
“Our concerns about the use of AI in decision-making, especially in really important decision-making — I’m very conscious that in the move towards the use of independent assessments in the NDIA that there is a risk that some of the mistakes that were made with regard to robo-debt could be made again in this context,” he said.
The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) announced the introduction of independent assessments for NDIS participants. They are designed, according to the government, to make sure access to the NDIS is fair and equitable for new and existing participants.
According to the federal opposition, independent assessments is another way of saying “robo-planning”.
“We have to learn the lessons from robo-debt and that in turn means we have to make sure that whenever AI is used, especially when it is used by government, it must be fair, it must be accurate, and it must be accountable,” Santow said.
“I think some of the concerns that have been expressed in public about the use of an algorithm in the independent assessment process for the NDIS is that some of those elements, fairness, accuracy, and accountability, could well be compromised.”
Santow said if an algorithm was used to make those crucial decisions at the NDIS, then the government needed to be very confident in the quality of the information being fed into the system and make sure it would be accurate, contain no errors, and be bias-free.
“Accountability is also crucially important — whatever decision is made, for example in the independent assessment area, it must be accountable,” he added. “People must understand the reasons for their assessment and they must be able to challenge that decision if they think that the decision is wrong or if it is unfair, especially if it is unlawful.”
In its report, the AHRC made a number of recommendations and suggestions to government, including that it place a ban on the use of facial recognition and other biometric technology in “high-risk” areas.
But where accessible technology was concerned, the commission asked that federal, state, territory, and local governments to commit to using digital communication technology that fully complies with recognised accessibility standards.
It recommended doing so through the introduction of whole-of-government requirements for compliance with these standards.
“People with disability have a right to access technology,” the AHRC said. “Access to new technology, especially digital communication technology, is an enabling right for people with disability because it is critical to the enjoyment of a range of other civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
“Good technology design can enable the participation of people with disability as never before — from the use of real-time live captioning to reliance on smart home assistants. On the other hand, poor design can cause significant harm, reducing the capacity of people with disability to participate in activities that are central to the enjoyment of their human rights, and their ability to live independently.”
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Digital initiatives across NSW gain funding boost from 2021-22 Budget
The New South Wales government handed down its 2021-22 Budget on Tuesday, revealing that digital initiatives across the state will receive handsome handouts.
Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said the state’s “secret weapon” to economic recovery from COVID-19 has been its digital government platform, which he claimed was “light-years ahead of the competition”. Off the back of this praise, the state government noted in its Budget papers [PDF] that it would pour an additional half a billion dollars over three years into its Digital Restart Fund, which is aimed at lifting whole-of-government digital capabilities.
“That takes our investment to transform digital services for our citizens to AU$2.1 billion,” Perrottet said.
Using the additional investment for the Digital Restart Fund, the Ministry of Health will be able to commence phase one of building its single digital patient record; Department of Customer Service will be able to establish its digital platform for certification registries as part of its eConstruction initiative; and the cybersecurity capabilities of the Department of Education, Planning Industry and Environment, Premier and Cabinet, Communities and Justice, Police, Transport for NSW, and the Ministry of Health will be lifted.
Under the Digital Restart Fund, AU$500,000 will also be invested towards the design and development of a new database for the NSW Pet Registry.
Meanwhile, the Data Analytics Centre will receive AU$38.3 million over four years to provide additional insight that will inform state policy decisions.
The Department of Customer Service is set to benefit from a AU$130 million funding boost, the Budget showed. The largest share, according to Minister of Customer Service Victor Dominello, will go towards the work of Service NSW.
“We want to save customers time and money when interacting with government, and technology is a critical part of the solution as we’ve seen with the Service NSW app, the NSW QR Code system, and Dine and Discover vouchers,” he said.
“This funding also allows us to build on popular products like the Digital Driver Licence, FuelCheck, and Park’nPay, while also uplifting our cyber and information security systems.”
The Budget also provides AU$660 million in funding to complete the state-wide rollout of the Critical Communications Enhancement Program (CCEP). Under the CCEP, the state government has been developing the public safety network to provide emergency services organisations with a single radio communications network. This latest funding will be the fourth tranche of funding the government has committed to the program since 2016.
“The final 318 (of 675) radio sites will be constructed and brought online delivering full state coverage. Network land coverage will increase from 47% to 85% of New South Wales and an increase in coverage of the state’s population from 96.0% to 99.7%,” the Budget papers said.
At the same time, Investment NSW has been allocated AU$416 million, of which AU$35 million will be invested into an entrepreneurship and innovation fund to “promote new ideas, design, and investment while creating sustainable jobs in targeted sectors, precincts, and regional New South Wales”.
The state government noted Tech Central and the Westmead Health and Innovation District will each receive AU$10 million. Tech Central will put the funds towards supporting investments, deep tech innovation infrastructure, and a program that will help develop talent needed to address the current tech skills gap.
Westmead Health will use the cash to establish new infrastructure that will house a shared lab space and incubator for startups that are looking to commercialise research in biotechnology, diagnostics, and digital health.
Furthermore, AU$500 million will be handed out to lift the spend on digital health initiatives, including virtual care and telehealth, while more than AU$214.3 million will be used to boost NSW Ambulance services by upgrading in-ambulance defibrillators that improve electronic medical record integration capabilities between NSW Ambulance and hospital emergency departments across the state.
The state government has also signalled its support for regional and rural Australia with a AU$198 million digital connectivity package that will be invested into initiatives such as the Gig State project, the expanded Farms of the Future program, and the mobile coverage project.
Looking at how NSW could better engage with the global community, the state government will fork out AU$87.5 million to target industry development programs in key industries such as space, medtech, cyber, fintech, regtech, and agtech.
When it comes to education, New South Wales school teachers will soon have access to a new online portal designed to support them in delivering the school curriculum. The interactive digital portal is part of the NSW government’s move to overhaul the state curriculum under a four-year $196.6 million package.
“The new portal will help teachers integrate syllabus materials and deliver lessons driven by the latest research and resources, meeting the needs of our students in a way we have never been able to do before,” Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell said.
“The new curriculum and the portal will save time for teachers, improve clarity, and make the implementation of the syllabuses even easier. The investment will allow teachers to unlock the curriculum’s potential while arming them with the best resources, multiplying the positive impacts of the reform.”
It will be the first major rewrite of the NSW curriculum in 30 years, according to the state government.
The new platform currently under development is set to go live in Term 4, 2021 along with new kindergarten to year 2 English and mathematics syllabuses.
Additionally, AU$19 million will be invested into refreshing video conferencing and computer facilities at TAFE campuses across the state.
The state government has also set aside a further AU$268.2 million as part of its response to the NSW bushfire inquiry.
Of that total package, AU$5.2 million will be used for additional drones for firefighting operations, AU$19.9 million will fund the upgrade of the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS) dispatch systems, and AU$10.6 million for the implementation of a new National Fire Danger Rating System.
“This commitment will bolster the future of our fire agencies and preparedness of communities, many of whom of have personally witnessed the devastating effects of fire,” Perrotet said.
This latest announcement follows the state government dedicating a total of AU$28 million over four years as part of the 2021-22 Budget into research and development of new technologies and industries to help NSW tackle future bushfires.
Perrottet said the funding would be evenly split into AU$7 million chunks under the NSW Bushfire Response R&D Mission.
Under the mission, the funding will be used to establish a bushfire technology network for researchers, investors, and industry, as well as work with local small businesses to develop and commercialise bushfire technologies through an early-stage Bushfire Technology Fund to ensure the new technologies are tested by NSW’s frontline bushfire services.
Other funding announcements in the state Budget included an additional AU$1 million to enable the development of an interpreting mobile phone application, which will link police and emergency services in the field with on-the-spot interpreters in order to provide timely interpreting support when needed.
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