Home Secretary Amber Rudd has sparked controversy due to her comment on the need of the police and intelligence services to have access to encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and others. In an interview for BBC, Rudd appeared to say that Khalid Masood, the British extremist that killed four people outside of Westminster, had used the WhatsApp messaging service a few minutes before his deadly attack.
The Home Office later said that her words were misconstrued and that she was only talking, in general terms, about terrorists exchanging WhatsApp messages. At this point, police are certain that the smartphone of the terrorist had the WhatsApp installed, but they don’t know if anything was communicated because of the encryption system.
Rudd speaking on BBC One said that “it is completely unacceptable, there should be no place for terrorists to hide. 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 seemed to be nostalgic for the past saying that “it used to be that people would steam open envelopes or just listen in on phones when they wanted to find out what people were doing, legally, through warranty. But now we must make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
The Home Secretary revealed that she is going to meet with leaders of technology companies on 30th March to discuss what can be done on this matter. Rudd told the BBC that “my desire is to persuade internet and social media companies to cooperate voluntarily with the government on this and the posting of extremist material online.” WhatsApp Inc. stated that the company is horrified by the Westminster terrorist attack and that it cooperates with law enforcement agencies.
Amber Rudd’s words provoked comments from the opposition, civil liberties groups and simple internet users. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, said that “authorities have already huge powers. There should be a balance between the right to know and the right to privacy.” Major General Jonathan Shaw, an ex-cybersecurity chief for the Ministry of Defense, said to The Independent that if the government pushes through laws to decode messages on applications like WhatsApp, terrorists would quickly learn to use other secure methods of communicating.
Shaw accused May’s government that it tries to use the Westminster attack as an excuse to grab unnecessary and intrusive surveillance powers. “It is all about ministers trying to seize the chance to push for security services having more control, despite there being only a weak case for it” the Major General added. Rudd was critisized for demanding more powers, but also for the practicality of UK legislation to curb activities of global internet activities based in the US.
Brian Paddick, a Liberal Democrat spokesman, said that “access to encrypted messages would be neither a proportionate nor an effective response. By implementing draconian laws that limit our civil liberties, we would be playing into terrorists’ hands. The Open Rights Group, which campaigns for internet privacy, mentioned in a statement that “putting a backdoor would make millions of people less secure online”.