The UK home secretary, Amber Rudd has said it is “completely unacceptable” that providers of end-to-end encryption, like Apple and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, “provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other”.
Rudd’s comments come after Khalid Masood used WhatsApp minutes before killing four people in Westminster last Wednesday.
It is understood that the intelligence services are still unable to see the messages Masood sent or received.
The home secretary told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “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.
“It used to be that people would steam open envelopes or listen in on phones if they wanted to see what people were doing, legally through warrants, but in this situation we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
Rudd also took exception to comments Apple CEO Tim Cooks made last year that if a backdoor or “master key” was created “the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices”
“If I was talking to Tim Cook I would say to him this is something completely different. We’re not saying open up, we don’t want to go into the cloud, we don’t want to do all sorts of things like that, but we do want them to recognise they have a responsibility to engage with government, to engage with law enforcement agencies when there is a terrorist situation,” said Rudd. “We would do it all through the carefully thought through, legally covered arrangements, but they cannot away with saying we are a different situation. They are not.”
Cook’s comments were made in relation to the case of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack.
In that case the FBI wanted Apple to help them access the encrypted messages of gunman Syed Rizwan Farook.
Apple declined saying what the FBI was asking ignored “the basics of digital security”, but the FBI was able to gain access to the phone without needing Apple’s intervention.
Now, Rudd appears ready to have this debate again with Apple, as well as other providers of end-to-end encryption, and has invited several unnamed companies to speak with her on the subject.
“I would ask Tim Cook to think again about other ways of finding out, of helping us work out how we can get into the situations like WhatsApp on the Apple phone,” said Rudd. “It’s not necessarily Apple itself, sometimes its WhatsApp or the other situations on it, which is why I’m calling in a lot of the organisations who are relevant to that this week to ask them to work with us to deliver the answer. It’s not about them standing back from us, this is a national problem.”
Despite Rudd and the UK government’s determination to force technology firms to build backdoors into their software, there are some figures in British politics who aren’t sure if this is a necessary step.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said authorities already had “huge powers”, and there had to be a balance between the “right to know” and “the right to privacy”.
Major General Jonathan Shaw, formerly in charge of cyber security at the MOD, told the Today programme that getting access to WhatsApp and other messaging service wouldn’t necessarily end the problem.
“The trouble is if you crack this nut you simple move the case onto another level. Terrorists will use different methods; they will use other means of communicating; they’ll use different codes; they’ll use hidden languages and private languages,” said Shaw. “I don’t think that necessarily if you have total transparency like this that you will crack the problem. The problem will mutate and move on.”
Shaw also questioned whether the fact that this debate was being led by politicians rather than the security services meant that the motive was political rather than ideological. Although, he did accept that the intelligence agencies would want more access if given an option.
“I think there is a lot of politics at play here. There’s a debate in parliament about the whole snoopers’ charter and the right of the state, and I think what they’re trying to do is use this moment to nudge the debate more in their line,” said Shaw.