WhatsApp’s Encryption Policy Is ‘Unacceptable’: British MP

Amber Rudd has summoned WhatsApp and other tech companies to London talk about the encryption challenges

Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd — REUTERS
Mar 27, 2017 at 5:55 AM ET

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd wants WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services to allow access to authorities investigating the recent London terror attack, calling it “completely unacceptable” that the government could not see texts protected by end-to-end encryption.

“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,” said Rudd on the BBC Andrew Marr show. “It used to be that people would steam open envelopes or just listen in on phones when they wanted to find out what people were doing, legally, through warrantry.”

Rudd said that she had summoned the leaders of tech companies — including WhatsApp, Google, Twitter and Facebook as well as smaller companies like Telegram — to a March 30 meeting on the issue.

Rudd’s statements came after it was reported that Khalid Masood sent an encrypted WhatsApp message to an unknown person in the minutes before he carried out the Wednesday terrorist rampage on Westminster Bridge. Masood used a rented SUV to ram into a crowded London tourist spot, killing three pedestrians and one police officer. Masood was shot dead at the scene.

Police have arrested 12 people in the investigation, including a 30-year-old man in Birmingham — Masood’s town of residence — on Sunday on suspicion of preparing terrorist acts, the BBC reported.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook and has a billion users worldwide, states that protecting private communication is one of its “core beliefs.” A spokeswoman from the company said that she was “horrified at the attack” and that she was co-operating with the investigation. But cybersecurity experts say that the police will be expected to hack into the messages independently, according to a report in the Telegraph.

Rudd’s demands from tech companies have also drawn ire from privacy advocates who argue that providing a backdoor to governments could have dangerous consequences.

“Compelling companies to put backdoors into encrypted services would make millions of ordinary people less secure online. We all rely on encryption to protect our ability to communicate, shop and bank safely,” said Jim Killock, the executive director of Open Rights Group, an internet privacy organization.

Police believe Masood, 52, acted alone, but are probing his digital trail and social media networks in order to establish a motive behind the attack.

What they know is that the British-born Masood had been previously been convicted for violent crimes in the U.K. and spent time in prison. He was a Muslim convert who worked as an English teacher in Saudi Arabia, and returned there in 2015 on a visa for religious pilgrimage.

ISIS, which has been losing ground in Iraq and Syria, claimed Masood was a “soldier” carrying out the group’s mission to attack Western countries. There has been no previously-recorded revelation from Masood or indication that he was swayed by ISIS propaganda to act.

“Even if he acted alone in the preparation, we need to establish with absolute clarity why he did these unspeakable acts to bring reassurance to Londoners,” said senior counter-terrorism officer Neil Basu on Saturday night.

“We must all accept that there is a possibility we will never understand why he did this. That understanding may have died with him,” Basu added.