There were claim and counter-claim in the media yesterday as the debate over encryption rumbles on with no sign of a consensus being reached.
The British Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who as we have reported before is a strong advocate of encryption backdoors, wrote an article for the UK’s Telegraph (£) newspaper in which she argued that the Government’s inability to see online communications in encrypted messenger services such as WhatsApp was undermining national security.
Rudd: ‘real people’ don’t need encryption
On the same day that she met with WhatsApp and other tech company executives at the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, in San Francisco, California, the Home Secretary decided to take a patronising and rather arrogant tone in arguing that “real people” do not need the high levels of security that encryption offers. Presumably, she would prefer it to be reserved only for herself and other more important people.
Speaking to the BBC this weekend, the Home Secretary seemed to suggest she wanted to have her cake and eat it, by claiming that whilst she understood that encryption was vital to secure many online facilities, the security establishment still needed access.
“It’s a problem for the security services and for police who are not… able to access that information”, she said. “We want [tech companies] to work more closely with us on end-to-end encryption, so that where there is particular need… they share more information with us so that we can access it.”
In particular, she claimed that it was important to have access to communication metadata (details about communications, such as who was in contact and for how long, but not the contents of the call) but was unwilling to say exactly what metadata she wanted, claiming those conversations were being held “in private”.
She also implied that if companies were not willing to give her what she wanted, she would legislate to make them do so.
It is clear that Amber Rudd is planning to stamp her feet a little in California, but equally clear that she has no fresh arguments or evidence to support the case that she is making to undermine encryption. Indeed, she has now herself admitted that it is vital for many online facilities, such as online banking and shopping, which people use every day.
Sandberg defend encryption policies
Meanwhile, a day earlier, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, also appeared on the BBC on their long-running radio show Desert Island Discs (users outside the UK will need a VPN connected to a UK server to listen).
She used the show to strike a more pragmatic and conciliatory tone, as well as to defend the encryption policies of Facebook and WhatsApp. Tellingly, she also made the point that metadata from their encrypted communications is already available for law enforcement agencies.
She noted that “the goal for governments is to get as much information as possible” and that the metadata they already provide is better than nothing. She went on to say that if WhatsApp were to break its encryption, those using it for nefarious purposes would most likely move onto another service which may well be one which doesn’t even share the metadata. The move would, therefore, she concluded, be self-defeating.
Despite using the show to highlight how out of step with reality the British Home Secretary seemed to be on this issue, she did still offer an olive branch. She claimed that Facebook and the UK Government are “very aligned in our goals” and stressed that Facebook wanted to “do our part to stop terrorism”.
“There’s absolutely no place for terrorism, hate, calls for violence of any kind [on Facebook],” she explained. “Our goal is to not just pull it off Facebook but to use artificial intelligence and technology to get it before it’s even uploaded.”
The standoff continues
Of course, Facebook wants to be seen to doing what it can to combat terrorism on its platform, as it is bad publicity every time another story on the issue arises. The fact that they are also now working with other tech companies to share information on such content also suggests that the pressure they are under from the UK Government, and others, is paying off.
But despite the progress being made, the words of the British Home Secretary suggest that they still want more. With the Australian Government seemingly leading the way in the argument for encryption backdoors, there does now seem to be a united front on the matter, at least amongst the so-called ‘Five Eyes countries.’
But the measured response of Sandberg indicates that tech firms are still willing to stand their ground, which means this debate is likely to rumble on for some considerable time yet.