Encryption of messages on services such as WhatsApp is “completely unacceptable” in the fight against terror, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said.
In the wake of last week’s terrorist attack on Westminster, the Home Secretary signalled a major crackdown on technology companies that use end-to-end encryption to protect their users against eavesdropping.
The call comes amid reports that Westminster terrorist Khalid Masood used WhatsApp seconds before launching Wednesday’s attack, but agencies are unable to see what was communicated because of encryption.
Khalid Masood, whose attack in London on Wednesday left four people dead and dozens injured including a dead police officer Keith Palmer, reportedly used WhatsApp seconds earlier – but security agencies are unable to see what was said due to the service’s encryption feature.
Asked about this situation, the Home Secretary said: “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.”
She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “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 warrantry. “But on this situation we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
What is Encryption
Encryption is a way of scrambling computer data so it can only be read by the person intended. WhatsApp currently uses end-to-end encryption, rendering messages meaningless if they were to be intercepted.
The Home Secretary said she was not proposing that such services should hand over vast amounts of everyday users’ data to police, but that they should allow access in specific circumstances.
She also said she would be willing to launch legal action against technology companies hosting extremist material which may be used by terrorists.
“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 that stops,” she said. “We will not resist from taking action if we need to do so.”
Ms Rudd is set to host a meeting with social media companies and other tech firms this week, with the aim of persuading them to cooperate voluntarily.