LONDON — Last week’s terror attack in Westminster that left five dead has reignited heated debate in Britain over encryption.
The attacker used WhatsApp shortly before he began the attack, prompting calls from some for tech companies to ensure that law enforcement can always gain access to encrypted data when required.
But security experts counter that it’s impossible to introduce backdoors into encryption without making everyone less safe.
It’s an issue that has been debated before — in Britain, the US, and around the world. But last Wednesday’s attack has brought it roaring back with a vengeance.
So what’s the problem?
Simply put, some messaging apps like WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage are end-to-end encrypted. This means they’re encrypted before being sent and decrypted on the recipient’s phone. There’s no way for anyone — whether it’s law enforcement or malicious hackers — to intercept and decrypt these messages in transit.
This keeps the messages secure, but also poses problems for security services looking to access the content of messages. (They can generally still see metadata, i.e. who is talking to who, which can be revealing even without the content of the communications.)
And what did the government say?
Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said it is “unacceptable” that terrorists were using apps like WhatsApp to conceal their communications, and that there “should be no place for terrorists to hide.
“We need to make sure,” she continued, “that organisations like WhatsApp — and there are plenty of others like that — don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate.”
(You can read a full transcript of her remarks below.)
Some are interpreting this as a signal the government intends to force tech companies to weaken their encryption. But Rudd stops short of saying the government would legislate as such (“I will have those conversations and we will see where they go,” she said). And later in the day, she told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “End-to-end encryption has a place. Cybersecurity is really important and getting it wrong costs the economy and costs people money, so I support end-to-end encryption.”
As such, it sounds like she is arguing that tech companies should be able to introduce encryption backdoors without compromising users’ security — something most experts say isn’t possible, and which The Guardian suggested would betray a “hazy grasp of encryption” on Rudd’s part.
(Alternately, Rudd’s remarks that “we have to have a situation where we can have our security services get into the terrorists communications” could be an oblique reference to equipment interference, i.e. legal hacking by law enforcement. She could be just affirming that we need to make sure the authorities have the appropriate tools to hack into devices when necessary, without compromising encryption, as they do already.)
Tech companies are due to meet with the government this week to discuss encryption and extremism. A full list of attendees isn’t currently available, though Google has confirmed to Business Insider that it will attend.
Others are going on the offensive against tech companies
Others have jumped on this line of argument. The Telegraph ran “Internet giants hide terrorist’s final note” as its headline on Monday, while The Daily Mail produced a feature about “Apps that let extremists plot in secret.”
Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tweeted that “
#Apple not providing FBI with codes to unlock terrorists phones and #whatsap [sic] not allowing access security services is a dangerous principle,” adding “you just develop a terrorist related exception that’s all or even one for grieving parents too caught up in this one size doesn’t fit” in response to a tweet saying that backdoors would damage everything from banking to government.
So what’s the problem with backdoors anyway?
Strong encryption isn’t just used in messaging — it underpins basically everything we do online. As security expert Bruce Schneier told Business Insider in 2015: “It secures our commerce. It secures our communications. It secures our critical infrastructure. It secures our persons from criminal attack, and it secures our countries from nation-state attack. In many countries, it helps journalists, dissidents, and human-rights workers stay alive. In a world of pretty bad computer security, it is the one thing that works well.”
Weakening encryption would make everything people do online less secure. Plus, Schneier suggested, any ban would be extremely difficult to enforce (emphasis ours):
“It gets draconian pretty fast. UK citizens would be banned from using secure software, and UK companies be banned from producing secure software. The government would have to enforce internet censorship: People couldn’t download secure software, search engines couldn’t answer queries about secure software, and every packet would be inspected to ensure it isn’t being encrypted with secure systems. Closed computing systems like iPhone would ban their users from installing secure software, and open computing systems like Microsoft Windows would be redesigned to prohibit users from installing secure software. Free software would be banned. Anyone entering the UK with a phone or computer would have them conform to UK standards, and border control would seize any devices that fail to do so. UK researchers would be prohibited from researching secure systems.”
Some are arguing that the focus on encryption is distracting from more important issues. “Interesting that the discussion has become about WhatsApp when the obvious policy problem is radicalisation in prisons,” Financial Times journalist Gavin Jackson tweeted.
BuzzFeed UK’s head of news Stuart Millar said: “MI5 decided Masood not worthy of surveillance but the Home Sec says lesson is nobody should be allowed secure WhatsApp. Obvious really.”
Here’s a complete transcript of Amber Rudd’s interview on the Andrew Marr Show, via the BBC:
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