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U.K. lawmakers assail Whatsapp for unreadable encrypted messages

Why it matters to you

Any time a democratic government encroaches on civil liberties, it sets precedent for many other countries around the world.

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has announced the United Kingdom government’s intention to persuade popular messaging service Whatsapp to provide a way for the authorities to read encrypted messages, following last week’s attack in London. Although Rudd didn’t claim it would look to force tech companies to provide a backdoor, civil liberties groups have called the proposals unrealistic and overreaching.

The attack, which took place on March 22 and saw many people injured and several killed, involved just one man, though many related arrests have been made since. However, the lone attacker was found to have used Whatsapp half an hour before the attack began, which has prompted the authorities’ increased scrutiny of the messaging application.

The home secretary attacked the idea of encryption on weekend television, saying “It is completely unacceptable. There should be no place for terrorists to hide.”

“We need to make sure that organizations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other,” she said (via The Guardian).

She later evoked ideological language, saying the tech companies behind such platforms should “be on our side,” and because they have children and families, they should understand why opening up encryption is necessary.

Although Rudd did go on to admit that the best people to discuss such matters with were the technology heads themselves, there has been some concern over her wording which suggested a lack of understanding of the core technological issues presented by her proposals.

“The best people — who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags — to stop this stuff even being put up, not just taking it down, are going to be them,” she said.

Her various statements prompted a strong response from left-leaning politicians and civil liberties groups. Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson Brian Paddick said in a statement that weakening encryption was not an “effective response,” to the problem.

“These terrorists want to destroy our freedoms and undermine our democratic society,” he said. “By implementing draconian laws that limit our civil liberties, we would be playing into their hands.”

Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, said that the police and intelligence agencies already had “huge powers of investigation.” Other politicians pointed out that the British government would have difficulty forcing any international app maker to change anything about their security.

Privacy lobby organization The Open Rights Group said that although technology companies should cooperate with police for specific, warranted investigations, there was no benefit to installing backdoors or weakening encryption.

“We all rely on encryption to protect our ability to communicate, shop, and bank safely,” executive director Jim Killock said.

This debate has been an important one in the United States as well, where in early 2016, the FBI attempted to force Apple to weaken security on an iPhone owned by a suspect it was investigating.