LONDON — Google has confirmed it will be meeting the UK government this week, following a fatal terror attack in central London that has reignited heated debate over encryption, and as the company engine comes under fire over extremist material accessible through its search engine.
On Sunday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she was “calling in a lot of organisations this week who are relevant” to discuss how the government and tech companies can work together to ensure law enforcement can gain access to encrypted data in terrorism investigations.
Rudd didn’t mention any companies the government would be meeting by name — saying only it is a “fairly long list.” But a Google spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider that it is among the companies who will be meeting this week. The Californian tech giant declined to comment further.
Shortly before the Westminster attack began, the extremist responsible used the messaging app WhatsApp. Facebook-owned WhatsApp end-to-end encrypts its messages, meaning they cannot be intercepted and read by anyone, including law enforcement or WhatsApp itself. This has kickstarted the perennial debate over encryption: Should there be “safe spaces” online, secured by encryption, that even authorities cannot access?
“There should be no place for terrorists to hide,” Rudd said in an interview on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday. “We need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp — and there are plenty of others like it — don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.”
Google’s Allo messaging app offers end-to-end encryption as an option, though it does not enable it as default. Both Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp automatically end-to-end encrypt all messages where possible (but not Messenger, Facebook’s other messaging platform).
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on whether the company would be attending the meetings, saying only in a statement: “We are horrified by the attack carried out in London earlier this week and are cooperating with law enforcement as they continue their investigations.”
An Apple spokesperson did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
A Home Office spokesperson said the meetings would take place on Thursday, and declined to comment further.
Security experts argue that any attempt to weaken encryption or introduce backdoors would make ordinary users less safe due to its use in everything from banking to government business, and would be extremely difficult to enforce given encryption tech’s widespread availability online.
Google has also been criticised following the attack over the accessibility of material promoting terrorism via its search engine. The Daily Mail branded it “Google, the terrorists’ friend” in a highly critical front-page article.
Rudd suggested that the UK government would take legislative action if necessary to tackle the issue, saying: “What these companies have to realise is that they are now publishing companies. They are not technology companies, they are platforms. And we need to make sure that stops. You are right, we will not resign from taking action if we need to do so.”
And prior to the Westminster attack, Google found itself at the centre of controversy after it emerged that government ads were appearing alongside extremist content on YouTube. The company met with the Government, apologised, and pledged to review its advertising systems.
Here’s a complete transcript of Amber Rudd’s interview on the Andrew Marr Show, via the BBC:
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