Australia reviews defence export controls, perhaps easing cryptography research

Hacker, white hat or crypto boffin? This is important

Australia's Department of Defence wants input on proposed changes to “controlled technology” export controls – and the deadline is this coming Friday.

Those controls are described in The Defence Trade Controls Act 2012 and are unloved by Australia's tech sector because their requirements to seek approval before sharing code are felt to have a chilling effect on academic research into cryptography and other advanced technologies.

Australia isn't alone in fighting that battle: internationally, the Wassenaar Arrangement's impact on crypto research is a touchy topic – especially since December 2016, when talks broke down. White-hats who travel to conferences to show off their exploits are particularly leery of the pact, since its classification of exploit software as a weapon puts the onus on researchers to seek exploit licenses merely to collaborate with researchers overseas.

Australian researchers have to worry both about Wassenaar and the local laws that implement it. In 2015, HackerOne's chief policy officer Katie Moussouris warned that the impasse threatened fixes to big bugs by crimping collaboration.

All of which makes the Defence Export Controls branch consultation important.

In the e-mail that accompanied the launch of the consultation, the department canvasses the idea of a “specific personal use exemption” for the export of technology.

That might not be enough to keep the academic hackers hacking: the department gives the example that “a permit will not be required to take a computer or data storage device overseas that contains controlled software or technology where it is for personal use and will not be transferred”.

The department also proposes a change to legislation to clarify “that the physical export of controlled software and technology stored on an uncontrolled good (e.g. computer/data storage device) will require an export permit”.

On the upside for researchers, the consultation suggests a more transparent process that would include a right of review, including allowing applicants to request a review of decisions by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. ®

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