Australia Doubles Down on Digital Surveillance, Gets Its First Monero-Based Nonprofit

In December 2018, Australia amended its 1997 Telecommunications Act to make it simpler for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to gain access to people’s personal electronic devices. For instance, it’s now easier for state-run agencies investigating federal offenses to get warrants granting them “covert computer access.” The time-frame for law enforcement to examine electronic devices under such warrants rose from 72 hours to 30 days.

Privacy advocates in Australia consider the updated law a serious threat to their rights and have been looking for ways around it. One of the fruits of these efforts is a new secure network built off Monero’s source code that has become the country’s first privacy software organization to register as a nonprofit.

The Loki Foundation registered as a charity on April 3. Besides offering an open source network through which users can communicate and transact safely away from prying eyes (or prying government bodies), the foundation also invests in the development of other privacy-focused technologies and aims to educate Australians about protecting their personal data.

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While other nonprofits in Australia work on education and developing open source software, “none have digital privacy at the core of their missions,” Simon Harman, cofounder and project lead at Loki, wrote to us over email.

“Our not-for-profit status with the ACNC carries significant responsibility,” he added. It means the company will be held to higher transparency standards for the work it’s doing—an irony considering the nature of that work—so as to engender trust among stakeholders.

Considering Australia’s new bill, it seems that an organization like Loki could face pushback from the government. It essentially seeks to provide an escape hatch for people who want to evade government monitoring by building services like an anonymous, decentralized messenger and private web browsing.

The proliferation of surveillance-heavy laws will foster the creation of technology that helps get around them.

“Increasingly we are seeing legislators, including those in Australia, move towards laws that restrict, control or even punish users of technologies that facilitate private communications,” Tim Norton, chairman of Australia’s Digital Rights Watch group wrote to us when we asked whether Loki would face regulatory obstacles in the country.

Though he didn’t answer the question directly, Norton seems to believe (perhaps hope) that the proliferation of surveillance-heavy laws will foster the creation of technology that helps get around them. “As the community of privacy technologists continues to grow and innovate, Australia and the world can look forward to a new wave of networks and tools that will protect basic rights to privacy,” he stated in a press release about Loki’s announcement.

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There are some clear, potential advantages to Loki registering as a nonprofit, according to Adriana Belotti. Belotti organizes various blockchain and cryptocurrency meetups (targeting professionals, women, bitcoin fans, lawmakers, Ethereum enthusiasts—you name it) from Sydney. She met Loki’s operations lead, Chris McCabe, and researcher Johnathan Ross, at a blockchain event in 2018. Having been entrenched in Australia’s blockchain since she started going to meetups several years prior, Belotti understands what Loki has to gain by not being a private company.

“With Loki being a foundation heading a fully open source software project it is harder to have law compliance enforced, because they don’t own the code, and anything that is developed is available for public scrutiny, which adds a layer of difficulty for the government if they choose to request the installation of anti-encryption backdoors to Loki’s software,” Belotti wrote to us. “The community (even those located outside Australia) can clean the code up or fork it,” she believes.

In the U.S., data privacy concerns seem to focus more on big tech companies (like Facebook, which just screwed up again) than on the government. But the more personal data threats accumulate, the more incentive people from all over the world will have to contribute to open source projects like Loki.