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Justin Hendry

Data localisation could limit compute access: Google

Australia’s access to cutting-edge compute capabilities would be restricted if the federal government was to introduce data localisation requirements for certain sensitive datasets, according to Google’s local public policy manager Alex Lynch.

Speaking on the United States Studies Centre’s latest ‘Technology and Security’ podcast, Mr Lynch raised the prospect of reduced access to “huge compute clusters” overseas as a potential consequences of any government intervention requiring onshore hosting.

Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil is currently considering local data storage requirements for some types of data in the wake of several high-profile data breaches last year, mostly notably at Optus and Medibank.

The Department of Home Affairs first called for views on local hosting requirements in a discussion paper exploring a future National Data Security Action Plan, which garnered a fiery response from the tech sector.

Sovereign servers

Global tech giants Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Meta and Atlassian and their industry associations have argued that local data storage requirements would add nothing to the security of data and would only hurt the economy by increasing the cost of doing business.

But O’Neil appears unconvinced, describing data localisation as “really important” and pushing back on claims that data can be held equally safe wherever it is located. She is planning to broach the issue as part of Australia’s next cybersecurity strategy.

“We have existed for a long time in the benign belief that wherever data is located it can be equally held safe and I think anyone who kind of pays vague attention to these matters knows today that that is absolutely untrue, so it’s part of the work with my department,” she said in December

In the TS podcast, released on Thursday, Mr Lynch said that while Google “can understand the argument for or desire for” why a government would want to host some dataset locally, it makes more sense to secure the data from any and all threat actors.

“We would like to think security should be the priority overall. We think that your… information is more secure, if it is secure against any actor that might want to access it,” he said.

But in addition to security, Mr Lynch discussed the implications from a computing perspective, with many of the biggest compute clusters, such as Google’s first quantum data centre, located outside of Australia.

“The future is not evenly distributed, as they always say,” he said in the interview with Dr Miah Hammond-Errey, the director of the Emerging Technology Program at the United States Studies Centres.

“For example, we have the first prototype quantum computer in Santa Barbara. We don’t have those in every country around the world, and it would be impossible and financially infeasible to build them in every country.

“Likewise, we have these huge data centres that have huge computational capacity – not data storage capacity, but the ability to run large algorithms across the data or train AI on the data – and these things are located in different jurisdictions.

“And so, if you have something, for example, a legislative instrument that says you cannot take a certain kind of data outside Australia, that means we couldn’t compute algorithms on it.

“For example, if you take the attacks that are being made against Australians’ email addresses or spam to their Android phones, we can look at all that information, compute it all overseas, and develop things that protect people’s Gmail from spam.”

During the conversation, Mr Lynch also discussed the shift from the bulk of R&D happening in the military to the private sector, and the positive impact this has had — and is continuing to have — on technology principles.

“Primarily R&D is [now] done in the private sector and we see that in Australia as well. This is a change from the past where, particularly during the Cold War era, it was very government-based,” he said.

“So that means we need to think carefully about different perspectives and different principles as private sector companies… and we need to comfortable having conversations, sharing technology in a way that we didn’t have to think about in the past.”

Mr Lynch highlighted Google’s AI principles to “preclude any kind of use that may result in harm”, which the “military has a very different perspective [on]”.

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