(mis)adventures in software development...

14 July 2015

Mandatory protocol analysis to the node

Category Technology

Is Attorney-General George Brandis hiring hackers to spy on us?

Gather round all ye geeks, wonks, activists, civil libertarians, conspiracy theorists — and let us all read between the lines of a job ad that was posted on Seek recently.

Let’s read between the lines of this job ad as we play everyone’s least favourite game of “guess which particular civil liberties and digital rights are under attack from the Australian government this month”?

The ad is titled “Software Developer - Protocol Analysis” and was posted (via a recruitment agency) on 12 June 2015. It’s a reasonably high paid role, located in “Central Melbourne”, for a “Federal Government Department”.

Turns out the Federal Government Department in question is the Attorney-General’s Department.

Seek job ad screenshot

That would be Attorney-General George Brandis. Remember him? He’s the guy who really, really wants our metadata, without a warrant, and without knowing what metadata actually means.

His department is responsible not just for the undemocratic and misguided data retention laws, but also the laws threatening to put investigative journalists in jail for 10 years for doing their job.

Then there’s the government’s recently introduced website blocking laws, probably designed to appease their corporate donors.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the specific skills the Attorney General’s department is looking for.

Protocol analysis of IP network applications and services. This includes aspects such as reverse engineering of network protocols and traffic analysis

For those less technically inclined, a protocol is an agreed set of rules that networked devices use to communicate with each other. Think of it as a particular language computers use to talk to each other.

For example, BitTorrent is a protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing. Could it be this protocol that the Attorney-General’s department is most interested in analysing?

Demonstrated understanding of IP networks and protocols

They’re looking for a software developer with specific knowledge of networking protocols. And also experience with spying on network traffic:

Experience with network protocol analysis tools such as Wireshark, TCPDump etc

Both Wireshark and tcpdump are what’s known as packet analysers. They’re used to capture, store, and analyse network traffic. They basically a way of “spying” on network communication — not necessarily in a sinister way, but of course they can be used for devious purposes.

Packet analysers are essentially a diagnostic tool. I’ve used tcpdump occasionally in the past, when debugging low level networking code. Still, it’s a bit unusual to see it explicitly mentioned in a software development job ad. It’s more likely something an networking/security engineer might use.

Putting it all together, it paints a kind of sinister picture. Especially given the way the Abbott Government has been waging war on the internet. First data retention, then website blocking, now this. What the hell is this ridiculous government up to now?

Why does the Attorney-General’s department want a software developer with network spying skills? Come to think of it, why does the Attorney-General’s department even need a software developer at all?

To paraphrase Tom Waits: What’s George Brandis building in there?

OK, so maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it is all completely innocuous. Maybe there’s a legitimate reason George Brandis’s department needs a software developer.

Maybe the Attorney-General’s department just want a technical person on staff to repeatedly explain metadata to Brandis?

Or maybe George Brandis is now overcompensating for that embarrassing Sky news interview where he badly fumbled his explanation of metadata. So maybe now he’s constantly dropping the term “metadata” into conversation, in an effort to prove he’s finally learned what it means. But apart from coming across as awkward and try-hard, he’s still getting the context wrong, and thereby demonstrating that he still has no idea what it really means. Maybe Brandis is doing things like coming back from lunch and loudly proclaiming he enjoyed his hot-dog with added metadata. And maybe his staff are tired of explaining: “That’s not metadata, George, it’s mustard.” Maybe there is no one on his staff who can adequately explain to Brandis that mustard is a condiment, while metadata retention is an invasion of privacy. That mustard is delicious, while data retention tastes of government overreach, with a bitter aftertaste of privacy violation — and possible side effects of widespread identity theft.

Maybe it’s all mundane and innocent and there’s no agenda. But probably not.

It’s most likely this job has something to do with either mandatory data retention, the new website blocking laws, or possibly some new scheme attempting to combat illegal downloading.

Or maybe all of the above.

I can’t imagine any scenario where a role like this in the Attorney-General’s department won’t result in some combination of curtailing civil liberties and government overreach. But then maybe I’m just not as imaginative as the Abbott government.