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Michael Pezzullo on restoring public trust in governments and getting around encryption

Michael Pezzullo

“Immigration and border management is the issue devouring public confidence in the political process in Western democracies,” thinks Department of Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo.

 “Encrypted communications have become a ‘right’, almost overnight…”

Pezzullo’s bailiwick presents the best opportunity to arrest the decline in public trust that has delivered increasingly unstable governments and unusual electoral outcomes in liberal democracies, he argued in a recent speech to the Australian Security Summit in Canberra.

He repeated past assurances that Australia’s new bureaucratic arrangements for domestic security — set out in the recently published Blueprint for Home Affairs — have created a “team of teams” that respects the “deep subject matter expertise” of the independent agencies under the new Home Affairs umbrella, but also encourages more “horizontal collaboration” between them.

He also warned any future government against dismantling it.

“The linking of managed immigration, border protection, and national security is more important than ever before to maintain that public confidence. And those who would seek to unravel those linkages do so very unwisely.”

The secretary used the speech to make a pointed comment about the controversial push by the Australian government to demand ways to access encrypted communications, one of many policy alignments among the nations in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement. It’s likely he was mostly preaching to the converted.

“Encrypted communications have become a ‘right’, almost overnight, subverting the traditional underlying social contract which underpinned targeted and lawful interception of traditional communications.

“And it is aiding terrorists, drug traffickers, money launderers, child exploitation syndicates, inside traders and others beside.

“Now, is that an argument not to have encrypted communications? No, it is not. But is it an argument to re-think how we access communications? Yes, it is.”

In a speech typically peppered with references to the big names in political science, history, international relations scholarship, Pezzullo opened by lamenting that an “overarching coherent conception or strategic construct” was often lacking in dialogues about how governments maintain community safety.

“Regrettably, domestic security and law enforcement still lack their Clausewitz, their Mahan, or their Kissinger,” said the Home Affairs chief, before confidently asserting his own scholarly perspectives on the state of the world.

One of those views is that the world is now becoming more dangerous and chaotic due to globalisation and digital communication technology, which he believes has empowered criminals and non-state actors while diminishing the ability of nation-states to keep up their end of the social contract.

Quoting controversial American statesman Henry Kissinger, the Home Affairs secretary said the “grand master strategist” believed a Hobbesian “state of nature” — a world of maximum freedom but no individual rights or obligations — had begun to develop in cyberspace.

Pezzullo repeated his view that national security risks can now only be managed by extracting useful intelligence from vast amounts of data using the latest analytical techniques and machine learning algorithms, and that the negatives of globalisation have been underestimated.

“The positive benefits of globalisation are clear. But the ‘dark side’ is darker than we anticipated in [the] post-Cold War years of the late 1980s and early 1990s — when the key ideas which form the basis of our contemporary intellectual models were being formulated.

“Perhaps our bias of optimism led us more towards validating and venerating Fukuyama’s End of History as opposed to say Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations. Although I do not think either got it right — and truth lies along a spectrum between the two.”

The full speech is available on the Department of Home Affairs website

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.