UK home secretary calls for WhatsApp to abolish encryption
Home secretary Amber Rudd has called for WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services to create a backdoor into their services for police and intelligence agencies.
Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show following last week’s terrorist attack on Westminster, Rudd declared it “completely unacceptable” that the government couldn’t read messages sent over encrypted services. To help combat the situation, the home secretary has scheduled a meeting with technology leaders on 30 March to discuss what to do next. Worryingly, she also revealed that she has no hesitation in passing new legislation to take on encrypted messaging if she doesn’t get her way in these talks.
Speaking to Marr, she said: “We need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.”
While you may initially agree with Rudd’s opinion, it’s worth remembering that terrorists have many ways to communicate with one another and it’s unlikely they’d be silly enough to use something as popular and widespread as WhatsApp when many low-key alternatives exist. Rudd’s focus on WhatsApp seems to stem from the fact that the Westminster attacker Khalid Masood had used the service shortly before his attack – although police can find no ties to any organisation.
End-to-end encrypted services also vastly benefit the general population, and it’s been revealed that many MPs use WhatsApp for secure communications and secret political strategies – although I’m sure Rudd wouldn’t want those exposed quite so readily. As many of Rudd’s critics agree, providing authorities with an extra layer of power would do little to quash terrorist threats.
One critic is Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, who believes such measures would be “neither a proportionate nor an effective response” to Masood’s attack on Westminster.
“These terrorists want to destroy our freedoms and undermine our democratic society,” he said. “By implementing draconian laws that limit our civil liberties, we would be playing into their hands.
“My understanding is there are ways security services could view the content of suspected terrorists’ encrypted messages and establish who they are communicating with.”
By utilising hacking techniques, authorities can already get around encryption to see what’s being sent and received on a specific device. The issue here is that it’s a lengthy and targeted process – what Rudd wants is for tech companies to open up their encrypted channels the moment authorities suspect someone of foul play. Speaking to The Guardian, Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, explained that by opening these doors it exposes the privacy of regular, everyday users.
“It is right that technology companies should help the police and intelligence agencies with investigations into specific crimes or terrorist activity where possible,” said Killock. “This help should be requested through warrants and the process should be properly regulated and monitored.
“However, compelling companies to put backdoors into encrypted services would make millions of ordinary people less secure online. We all rely on encryption to protect our ability to communicate, shop and bank safely.”
Calls for encrypted services to open themselves up aren’t new and seem to occur after almost any terrorist incident that shakes the Western world. In reality, it’s a largely pointless exercise as this encryption expert shows in just five minutes – anyone can send a private message if that’s really what they want. Rudd’s insistence on cracking WhatsApp and other tech companies appears more like a fear of technology than an understanding of the situation at hand, and misunderstands the challenges involved: there’s no such thing as a backdoor that only the good guys can use.