The Australian reported today on alarm by Federal police at the opportunities the NBN will provide to cyber-crooks. "The inherent risk of the NBN is that it could facilitate the continual growth and sophistication of online criminal syndicates' ability to commit cyber offences against online systems due to the attractiveness of the increased speed," they said in a submission to a Parliamentary enquiry.
The problems with this line of reasoning should be immediately obvious. When your mission in life is to thwart crime, you apparently start to see all change through the prism of your own job.
Solving and preventing crime is, certainly, easier in a simpler and slower world. The police are right in saying that the NBN will bring new opportunities for crooks. As bandwidth increases, new and complex services will proliferate, more transactions and commerce will occur online, and international boundaries will blur even further. Communications will become more difficult to trace. To the enterprising fraudster, hacker, or even child pornographer, the NBN will be a boon.
It's also true that new roads help bank robbers execute their getaway. Is this an argument against road-building?
Obviously not, because the increased opportunities presented by improved infrastructure are available to everybody, not just crims. Every new technology can be used for sinister purposes. The mobile phone is perfect for plotting crime on the run, because it is perfect for conducting any enterprise on the run. Surely not even the AFP could seriously suggest that we forego the transition to a 21st-century economy in order to cut down on online auction fraud?
Maybe not, but similar arguments have been advanced and zealously pursued in the past.
Famously, the introduction video cassette recorder was violently opposed by the movie industry on the grounds that it could be used for copying movies, never mind the many legitimate uses (or the fact that it eventually proved to be an unparalleled cash cow for Hollywood). The legitimate uses far outweigh the criminal ones.
Or take, for example, the controversy around easily-available encryption such as PGP email. When privacy can be ensured, everybody benefits as communication within organisations becomes more flexible, commerce becomes more secure, and oppression becomes more difficult. As a side effect, law enforcement have a more difficult time intercepting the communications of criminals. This may be regrettable, but it's hardly a reason to deny the benefits to the rest of society. That didn't stop governments and law-enforcement agencies banning the export of secure software or even mandating the inclusion of "back-door" mechanisms for snooping.
The NBN, of course, will be particular to Australia. Even if we were allowed to continue lagging behind the rest of the world, the world will move on and cybercrime will continue to affect us. With or without the NBN, as the police note, most criminal activity is outside of Australian jurisdictions. It's therefore hard to see how this could provide an argument even for caution in improving our own infrastructure.
The AFP wrote that the "proliferation of a large number of [retail service providers] has the potential to increase the difficulty law enforcement has to obtain telecommunications data." This is chilling coming on the heels of a push by the Government for tough data retention laws for ISPs. And once again it shows that to the AFP, concern for making the job of a police detective easier clearly outweighs the benefits to the country of a competitive communications industry. This way of thinking is understandable, but impossible to agree with.
It's also worth pointing out that these technologies, when cleverly exploited, can help police work as much as criminal enterprises. Even the AFP should benefit from increased bandwidth and information sharing.
Luckily, the country as a whole seems to have a better sense of perspective and is embracing the possibilities of the internet in general and the NBN in particular. While the AFP describes the internet as "a veil for a diverse array of criminality", including the usual suspects of theft, fraud, and child pornography, we know better. Anywhere where ideas and commerce can thrive, there will be crime - it's part of the story of humanity since before we came down from the trees. But in this and many other debates, we tend to forget just how vastly the benefits of the internet outweigh the costs. This should serve as a timely reminder.