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Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called for the government and security organisations to have access to messaging services such as WhatsApp, raising the question of whether such agencies should be allowed to investigate such encrypted services.
Rudd’s calls came after it emerged police were investigating reports that Khalid Masood, the extremist responsible for killing four people in the Westminster attack, used WhatsApp just minutes before he arrived at Westminster Bridge.
Speaking during an interview, Rudd stated that it was “completely unacceptable” for the government to be prevented from accessing messages protected by end-to-end encryption, stating that she had summoned leaders of technology companies to discuss possibilities.
“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,” Rudd argued. “We have to have a situation where we can have our security services get into the terrorists’ communications. That’s absolutely the case.”
Further commenting on the calls, Rudd added that she hopes to encourage technology firms to cooperate voluntarily, and so avoid the need for the government to implement forced security measures.
“It is completely unacceptable. There should be no place for terrorists to hide,” she added.
Despite Amber Rudd’s argument for security, her calls have been met with criticism by various government figures from across parties, including the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who suggest such legislation could infringe privacy and freedom laws.
In response to Rudd’s calls, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I’ve been concerned about giving too much unaccountable power to anybody in our society, so could the security services go to court and make an application? I would have thought they probably could,” he said.
Mirroring these concerns, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Brian Paddick, a former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner, stated that the move could play into the hands of terrorists hoping to destroy the freedoms offered by our society.
“These terrorists want to destroy our freedoms and undermine our democratic society,” he warned. “By implementing draconian laws that limit our civil liberties, we would play into their hands. Having the power to read everyone’s text messages is neither a proportionate nor an effective response.”
It’s not clear whether the calls will eventually lead to the introduction of new legislation. However, they have already prompted some experts to explore the ways in which it could be implemented without infringing on the increasing privacy desired by users of modern technology.
Jamie Bartlett from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos and the University of Sussex, suggested that privacy concerns are a natural reaction to terrorist attacks, but added that the rise of encryption in technology means it’s now relied upon and valued by the public.
According to Bartlett, removing such privacy features could increase calls to police departments regarding cyber crime, prompting GCHQ to reject the argument that it could be positive for anti-terrorism efforts. However, he has suggested that experts could attempt to find an alternative response to ensure the public’s security isn’t undermined.
“This [a ban on encryption] would be a short term solution. The rise of these apps will continue,” he added. “We need a different approach and sometimes that means accepting that they [authorities] won’t be able to access it and we can’t get all the information we would like.”