Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash.

The thin line between freedom and security is being beached again.

ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis is making the case for the crossbench to support new encryption laws.

As always, terror is being used as the catalyst, and it is hard to argue against the need to strengthen the tools for the spy agency.

However, argue we must.

Lewis says 95 per cent of terrorists, spies and hackers were using encrypted communication and data, and said it was “greatly concerning” their activities remained undiscovered or hard to track.

Yes. That’s why they use them.

Writing in The Australian yesterday, Lewis says effective encryption helps protect bank accounts, private conversations and business transactions “fundamental to our nation’s prosperity and security”, but cautions that protection is “equally available to, and used by, those who would do Australia harm”.

For a security service such as ASIO, going dark is not a theoretical challenge; it is happening now and is a pervasive risk to our ability to deliver our mission of keeping Australia, Australians and Australian interests safe. ASIO has an anticipatory and predictive role, and its task is to identify and act against threats before harm has occurred. Our capability to meet this responsibility is much diminished as a result of going dark.

But with each encroachment, the envelope opens just a little bit more.

New Zealand recently introduced laws which could see you turned back at the NZ border if you don’t share your phone passcode. If you’ve even watched a Border show you would have seen Canadian border patrol access phone records to quiz potential visitors to Canada.

When cameras are rolling, it is unlikely they would be untoward. When they aren’t, who knows what they will do when they get hold of your phone.

At least Lewis didn’t run the tired line that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

On that basis, they could round up everyone who opposes such legislation and expansion of powers as we are obviously guilt of something.

Another frequent argument in this space is that ASIO and the like need new powers to deal with the new technology. There is another angle: the new technologies are a response to increasing encroachment on civil liberties. Would WhatsApp be needed if people felt their message services were safe? Agencies will always be chasing technology because they are encouraging it through their greater powers.

It is also worth remembering a few things about Duncan Lewis.

In September 2015, Lewis was concerned that ASIO’s capabilities might not be keeping pace with ISIS, despite the fact that “[ASIO’s] budget has increased fourfold in about the last 10 years, our numbers in the organisation have increased fourfold in the last 10 years … and we recently received a substantial injection of funding and resources for that to continue for the foreseeable future”.

In the same speech, he noted that ISIS/ISIL was a major threat. He said that Islamic State remained a major headache for security agencies, with 120 Australians currently fighting for the group and 170 providing financial, recruitment or propaganda assistance to the group on home soil.

However, it was less than two years at Senate Estimates that he didn’t see a link between Islam and terror.

[Senator Pauline] Hanson asked: “Do you believe that the threat [of terrorism] is being brought in, possibly, by Middle Eastern refugees that are coming out to Australia?” Lewis’ reply was categoric: “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest there is a connection between refugees and terrorism”.

His answer lacked the nuance needed to make it 100% accurate. Critics could quickly point to the fact that those responsible for recent Australian incidents have been from a refugee background. Man Haron Monis, who in 2014 terrorised hostages in the Lindt Cafe, was a refugee; perpetrators of the Melbourne Endeavour Hills attack of 2014 and the Parramatta 2015 shooting were from refugee families.

… Lewis, while continuing to reject the underlying proposition in Hanson’s question, tried to put precision into his response, telling the ABC: “The reason they are terrorists is not because they are refugees but because of the violent extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam that they have adopted”.

Lewis’ answer was too cute by half. Everyone at the time knew it although manyin he media jumped on the answer as a solid and irrefutable reubbtal of Hanson. It was no such thing. In the age before Google, Lewis would have been in the clear for a week or so. He fluffed the line and did himself no end of harm. And now, by dint of chance, Lewis must ask the crossbenchers to support increasing his powers, including … Senator Hanson.

Labor has refused to endorse the laws. The Greens are less likely than Labor to change thier mind. Mark down David Leyonhjelm as a no. And Hanson? After the humiliation last year, Lewis might find cracking the code behind WhatsApp easier than cracking Hanson.