According to reports in the UK, a fresh request from the British Government for WhatsApp create a backdoor into their encrypted messaging service was refused earlier this year.
The story, which was first reported on Sky News referenced an anonymous source from within the security industry who said the demand was made at a meeting with WhatsApp officials over the summer.
UK’s anti-encryption push
As regular readers will know, the UK Government has been stepping up their efforts to compromise encrypted messaging services since the wave of terrorist attacks which hit in London and Manchester earlier this year.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd and her predecessor and current Prime Minister, Theresa May have both targeted tech companies, with Rudd’s onslaught continuing despite the wealth of expert evidence against the Government stance, from sources including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and two former heads of British intelligence agencies.
But this has not persuaded the Government to change course, with Security Minister Ben Wallace recently describing tech companies as hypocrites for refusing to help Governments tackle terror, but monitoring their customers content for their own financial benefits.
His ill-informed stance sums up the pickle that the British Government has got itself into over this issue and from the latest reports it sounds as if WhatsApp have let them down gently again.
Why encryption cannot be compromised
They explained that while they were willing to hand over metadata on suspects, including such information as names of account holders, when it was used, and what IP Address it connected from, they cannot hand over content data which they do not hold.
In a statement posted on the company’s website, they go a little deeper, explaining that “we carefully review, validate, and respond to law enforcement requests based on applicable law and policy, and we prioritize responses to emergency requests.”
WhatsApp and other such providers such as Telegram frequently take down accounts with proven links to terrorism and extremism, but providing a backdoor to the encryption would render the whole service meaningless. Terrorists would immediately begin using other tools and Governments would then lose all the data they do get handed by existing providers.
Undermining encryption would damage many other aspects of our online lives too, with such everyday services as online banking and online retail dependent on it. Encryption is not going away either, and if everyday services like WhatsApp are breached, terrorists will move on to other, shadier providers, which encrypt content but cooperate far less with Government requests.
The real effect of encryption backdoors
At the same time, terrorists are getting more and more tech savvy and it is surely only a matter of time before they are creating their own encrypted communication tools.
But the information war against encryption persists, with Sky reporting that 80% of terrorist cases involve the use of encrypted communications, the latest example of this. And the so-called Five Eyes governments of the UK, the USA, Australia New Zealand, and Canada, appear to be intent on breaking the encryption deadlock.
The Sky News report suggests that British officials still believe that they can reach a compromise on the issue, despite numerous tech experts explaining that encryption really is an all-or-nothing deal.
It is clear that this issue is not going to go away anytime soon and it may only be a matter of time until one Government or another tries to legislate to force companies to create an encryption backdoor. How the tech industry would respond to that challenge remains to be seen, but even if they do cave in, users can always turn to other encryption tools, such as a VPN, to secure their communications.