The recent terror attack in London was the city’s worse in more than a decade and shook the feeling of safety for many citizens. Just days after the attack, the British government went after WhatsApp encryption in the name of public safety—but does it violate privacy laws?
Safety vs. Privacy
The familiar debate is often raised after such attacks—should government and public safety officials have access to encrypted communication like cell phones and messaging to keep the general public safe? After the London attack, Britain’s home secretary Amber Rudd placed some of the blame on companies that make encrypted communication possible.
“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.
With today’s technological advances, passwords and security methods are often required to access information, which can stop law enforcement and governments from seeing communication from suspects or monitoring various channels to prevent attacks. The London terror suspect sent a WhatsApp message just before the attack, but the content and recipient of the message can’t be accessed by police because they are encrypted.
End-to-end encryption, which is becoming increasingly popular, makes messages unintelligible to anyone who isn’t the intended recipient, including the service provider, which means platform providers like the popular messaging service WhatsApp don’t have access to any of the messages. Even if WhatsApp grants the government access to the messages, it would be nearly impossible to access the messages and WhatsApp would have to rewrite its entire code just for the chance of recovering the information.
Hacking for the Greater Good
The current issue is similar to what happened after the 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, California, when the FBI requested that Apple unlock the suspect’s locked iPhone so they could gain information for the investigation. Apple refused to provide a backdoor way to unlock the phone, but the FBI was ultimately able to gain access by hacking into the phone.
However, Rudd says the London case is different than the San Bernardino investigation. “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 recognize they have a responsibility to engage with government,” she said.
In 2016, the UK passed a bill, known as the Snoopers’ Charter, that allows the government to remove encryption from services like WhatsApp and to require companies not use end-to-end encryption for future services.
However, creating a backdoor solution is easier said than done. Like Apple reiterated in its response to the FBI request, it is impossible to create a solution that only lets in the good guys, meaning that ending encryption could open up billions of devices to potential hacking.
Once the door has been opened for a high-profile terror case, it can’t be closed, so there is always the possibility of being gaining access to messages and services, which puts private information at risk. Apple’s response to the FBI set the stage for future cases, just like the response from WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, could dictate future cases.
Benefits of Encryption
However, encryption-fueled technology also opens a number of doors to data collection. Although the messages themselves might be impossible to read, smartphones provide a huge amount of data that can be used for government surveillance.
Law enforcement, for example, can obtain a warrant to get a phone’s location data, which can help them pinpoint where a suspect was leading up to an attack.
Technology plays an interesting role in terrorism investigations, and there often isn’t a good solution. Just like the general public doesn’t want to experience terror attacks, it also doesn’t want to put its own privacy at risk. How the situation between WhatsApp and the UK plays out could change the future for encryption and privacy.
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