In the wake of a terrorist attack, such as the one in London last week, Governments usually wait for the dust to settle before making kneejerk policy announcements. Not so in the UK, where Home Secretary Amber Rudd went onto Sunday morning television to announce that encrypted messaging services had to be stopped in the wake of the attack just four days before.
Policy without evidence
Speaking on the flagship topical discussion programme, the Andrew Marr Show, on BBC 1, Rudd said that “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.”
So why has the Home Secretary turned on WhatsApp in the wake of the attacks? It is essentially because the police announced in the days after the attack that Khalid Masood, the perpetrator, had been using WhatsApp just before he struck.
It seems that Rudd has jumped to the conclusion that he was communicating with others about the attack just prior to it taking place, and presumably earlier as well. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this assumption and in fact, the Metropolitan Police, who are running the investigation, have already clearly stated that Masood was a “lone actor”.
Rightly and properly, they are investigating all his connections to enquire as to how and why he became radicalised, but at the present moment, all evidence points to the time he spent working as an English teacher in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah.
The call for an end to end-to-end encryption comes just months after the same Government introduced the Investigatory Powers Act, which is the most intrusive surveillance law in the free world and which has already handed UK security services unprecedented powers.
But it seems as these powers were unable to stop this particular attack, the Government response is going to be to try and hand over more.
Amber Rudd’s comments have been met with widespread criticism and no shortage of mockery.
Her comment that “the best people who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff ever being put up” has been trending online with many lamenting that someone who lacks even a basic understanding of this type of technology is in charge of legislation in this area.
But many have also been quick to criticise her attack on encryption. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, which supported the Investigatory Powers Act, indicated that he was opposed to additional powers.
Meanwhile, Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesperson, Lord Paddick described the proposals as “neither a proportionate nor an effective response” to the London attacks.
Campaigners have yet again had to highlight the wider problems that a backdoor into end-to-end encryptions would create.
Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group has spoken in support of encrypted messaging services helping law enforcement bodies when there is a warrant or court order provided. But he said that a backdoor would “make millions of ordinary people less secure online” and went on to highlight encryptions role “our ability to communicate, shop and bank safely.”
WhatsApp has responded by saying they are “horrified” by the attacks and are “cooperating with law enforcement” but have obviously chosen to hold back from criticising Rudd’s specific comments on encryption.
It is thought that Rudd has a meeting scheduled with tech companies, including WhatsApp, next week when this issue will no doubt be raised. All companies in this field have a long track record of strongly supporting people’s right to encryption so it seems unlikely they will fold on this issue despite the horrors seen in London last week.
It comes as no surprise that the Government is trying to push this issue through now. The current Prime Minister, Theresa May, was Home Secretary when the Investigatory Powers Act was introduced and argued at the time for a backdoor into encrypted communications.
Like all Government’s, the UK also a track record for using terrorist attacks to railroad through kneejerk and disproportionate security laws, so it will come as no surprise to see them doing so again.
It is to be hoped that those voices who have been critical of the new calls remain so, but it would also seem sensible for UK internet users to employ a reliable VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN to protect their data in any case. Even under the current laws, freedom and privacy online is difficult to achieve in the UK without it.