After banning working cryptography and raiding whistleblowers, Australia’s spies ban speakers from national infosec conference

Australian politics are a revolting mess of unstable governments dominated by xenophobic, climate-denying far-right oligarchs, and the only check on their power is the fact that Australian governments are so riven by internal strife and unhinged authoritarianism that they tend to collapse on a quarterly basis, triggering new elections and/or leadership contests.

But the Aussie oligarch class are persistent: sometimes, they can actually get policies and laws that suit their needs enacted, as happened in late 2018, when the country banned working cryptography, or last June, when cops and spies staged a series of armed raids on journalists who’d reported on leaks that revealed official corruption.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the country’s annual flagship cybersecurity conference, the annual conference of the Australian Information Security Association, has become mired in a censorship scandal.

This year, AISA opted to co-organise its annual conference with the Australian Cyber Security Centre, a creature of the same spy agencies that led the crackdown on whistleblowers in June.

But the ACSC has a very different set of priorities to AISA, which is why it insisted on the cancellation of multiple invited talks at the show, including Thomas Drake, a celebrated NSA whistleblower who was scheduled to give a talk on “the golden age of surveillance, both government and corporate”; and the University of Melbourne’s Dr Suelette Dreyfus whose cancelled lecture was on “anonymous whistleblowing technologies like SecureDrop and how they reduce corruption in countries where that is a problem.”

Both speakers have posted their slides, and Bruce Schneier, who gave a keynote at the conference, opened his talk by reading the URLs aloud.

But the censorship doesn’t stop there: ACSC also demanded that invited speaker Ted Ringrose (partner at the Ringrose Siganto law firm) remove criticism in his speech on Australia’s ban on working cryptography, going so far as to edit his slides to remove “bias.” (Ringrose refused and was allowed to give his original talk as planned).

Australia’s slide into authoritarianism is clearly accelerating. The decision to include an anti-encryption spy agency in the organising of the nation’s flagship security conference smacks of the Soviet practice of including “political minders” on the committees for scientific symposiums, to make sure that no one challenged the official doctrine.

You can read the banned talk notes and the accompanying slides at Censorcon.Net.

Alex Woerndle, deputy chair of the Australian Information Security Association (AISA), which organised the conference, said questions about the two speakers being removed should be directed to ACSC but said: “AISA supports and encourages diversity of views however it’s important to note we work with a number of partners, including government, and as such need to manage a variety of views to deliver an event catered for all our stakeholders.”

ACSC did not initially respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. Guardian Australia directly approached officials at the agency’s booth at the conference on Wednesday, and was later told that no comment would be provided on the matter.

The conference also banned media from attending a session where an official from Home Affairs explained the development of the government’s 2020 cyber security strategy. Non-media attendees said the talk contained nothing that wasn’t already public knowledge.

Melbourne cyber conference organisers pressured speaker to edit ‘biased’ talk [Josh Taylor/The Guardian]

Speakers Censored at AISA Conference in Melbourne [Bruce Schneier]

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After banning working cryptography and raiding whistleblowers, Australia’s spies ban speakers from national infosec conference