Where do you stand: should WhatsApp be made available to authorities? The encryption debate rages on...

Home Secretary, Amber Rudd is urging WhatsApp and other encrypted services to allow their platforms to be accessed by intelligent services and police. Yet critics and the tech industry say such a demand is idealistic and disproportionate.

Once upon a time, authorities steamed open letters to look for clues. Now, tracking down criminals and anticipating events is a more complex affair as terrorists turn to encrypted messenging services that conceal their actions.

Rudd’s request came after it transpired that Westminster Bridge attacker Khalid Masood sent a WhatsApp message just minutes before his rampage that left five dead. This message could be a clue to his social media contacts, possible accomplices and thought process.

‘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,’ explained Rudd. ‘It is completely unacceptable. There should be no place for terrorists to hide.’ She wants a ‘back door’ system enabling authorities to retrieve information but the tech industry is reluctant. Rudd is also asking technology companies to help prevent the publication of online material that promotes extremism and to make the web less useful to extremists. Critics call it a knee jerk reaction made by those who don’t understand the implications of what they’re proposing. They say Rudd’s demands would make online communications, shopping and banking less secure for millions of ordinary people.

‘The encryption debate always rages after a terror incident, regardless of how effective backdoors would have been,’ argues security consultant Troy Hunt. ‘Even if, say, the UK was to ban encryption or mandate weaknesses be built into WhatsApp and iMessage, those with nefarious intent would simply obtain encryption products from other sources.’

April 2017