While the safety of citizens is a government’s first duty, the home secretary’s accusation that WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services are providing a “place for terrorists to hide” is deeply misguided.
Amber Rudd’s comments over the weekend regarding the state’s inability to read encrypted messages constitute a misunderstanding of encryption protocol and serve as an unwelcome gesture to the UK’s booming tech sector.
It raises again the perennial question of the state’s right to snoop on our personal communications. Ironically, the rise of end-to-end encrypted messaging services, such as that provided by WhatsApp, is partly down to a growing unease in governments’ ability to eavesdrop on our communications. Now that citizens and businesses have the power to protect ourselves, the state is desperate to stay ahead of technological innovation.
We cannot allow them to deny us the right to communicate in private. After all, it is not just governments we want protection from. In a digital age, encryption offers a way to protect ourselves from malicious actors, of which there are plenty.
Regardless of whether we’re facing a criminal hacker stealing valuable data from a business, or an authoritarian regime crushing the voices of dissidents, the encryption protocol is the same: binary. Either something is encrypted, and thus secure, or it’s not. If the state gives itself a backdoor, it opens one to everyone else.
Rudd has painted WhatsApp as the bad guys here – a facilitator of terror – but she couldn’t be more wrong. The service, and others like it, are on our side, protecting our communications. Thankfully her renewed crusade against encryption has little support among her colleagues.
The home secretary’s insistence that tech companies should, in the name of security, leave themselves vulnerable is both facile and myopic. The reputations of tech companies are built on consumer trust: we trust WhatsApp and others to keep our information safe in an increasingly complex world. It is “cooperating with law enforcement”, and should do no more.
Furthermore, London prides itself on being a City tech companies can thrive in, without creeping state meddling. The digital-tech sector has grown 30 per cent in five years, now contributing £97bn to the UK economy. Does Rudd really want that to wane? If firms are forced to weaken security protocol simply because they’re based in the UK, it will surely make the country less attractive to this vital sector.