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Home secretary Amber Rudd appears to have backed down on her crusade against end-to-end encryption that began after the Westminster terror attack on 22 March 2017.
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After it emerged that attacker Khalid Masood used WhatsApp minutes before carrying out his killings, Rudd told the BBC that messaging apps must not “provide a secret place” for terrorists to communicate, and that when a warrant had been issued, officers should be able to “get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp”.
On Sky News, Rudd said she supported end-to-end encryption as a cyber security measure, but said it was “absurd to have a situation where you can have terrorists talking to each other on a formal platform that can’t be accessed”.
Rudd then summoned WhatsApp’s owner, Facebook, and Google, Twitter and Microsoft to a meeting to discuss ways to ensure that security officers get the data they need in the future.
In an official statement after the meeting, however, no mention was made of restricting encryption or requiring tech firms to provide back doors.
“My starting point is pretty straightforward. I don’t think that people who want to do us harm should be able to use the internet or social media to do so. I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to stop this,” said Rudd.
She described the discussion as “useful” and said that progress has been made on the issue of access to terrorist propaganda online and the “very real and evolving threat” it poses.
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Rudd said she wants to see this issue tackled head-on, and I welcomed the commitment from the key players to set up a cross-industry forum that will help achieve this.
“In taking forward this work I’d like to see the industry to go further and faster in not only removing online terrorist content, but stopping it going up in the first place.
“I’d also like to see more support for smaller and emerging platforms to do this as well, so they can no longer be seen as an alternative shop floor by those who want to do us harm,” she said.
The conflict between privacy and public safety
Rudd’s meeting with tech firms and their commitment to set up an industry forum to tackle the threat of terrorist propaganda comes just a week after FBI director James Comey called for an international framework on encrypted data access.
The world is wasting time in resolving the conflict between privacy and public safety, he said, reiterating his call for technology firms to find a way to balance privacy with public safety concerns.
He believes surveillance is necessary for effective law enforcement, and since 2014 has been calling for co-operation from tech producers to enable law enforcement to access digital content when necessary.
Responding to Rudd’s comments, Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary Brian Paddick said: “I’m glad the tech industry seems to have put an end to Amber Rudd’s ambitions to ban end-to-end encryption.
“Of course, internet service providers and social media platforms must do everything they can to prevent terrorist material being spread online.
“But I hope the Conservative government’s obsession with undermining our security online has finally been put to bed for good,” he said.
Government seeking greater powers of intrusion
The government has come under fire for seeking even greater powers of intrusion after passing the Investigatory Powers Act in December 2016, which many consider too intrusive.
In March 2017, civil rights organisation Liberty issued a legal challenge to the indiscriminate state surveillance powers in the legislation, which opponents commonly refer to as the Snoopers’ Charter.
Liberty is challenging the unprecedented “bulk” surveillance powers that allow the state to monitor everyone’s web history and email, text and phone records, as well as hack computers, phones and tablets.
The plans argue that several powers created by the legislation breach the British people’s rights, including the power that lets police and agencies access, control and alter electronic devices such as computers, phones and tablets, regardless of whether their owners are suspected of involvement in crime, leaving them vulnerable to further attacks by hackers.
The Home Office claims the legislation is necessary to protect the UK’s national security, and that it has sufficient oversight for the surveillance powers it gives. But civil rights groups have said the powers are draconian and too intrusive.