UK Wants WhatsApp Backdoors – Needs Help From Those Who “Understand the Necessary Hashtags”


Similar to the Apple's fight over encryption with the FBI after the San Bernardino shootings, Facebook is facing its own battle in the UK. The Westminster Bridge shooter was believed to have sent a message via WhatsApp, which offers end-to-end encryption to users before he began the attack. However, Scotland Yard and other law enforcement agencies cannot access this or other messages sent by the attacker.

UK demands backdoor to WhatsApp after London attacks

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said that encrypted messaging services provide a place for terrorists to hide. WhatsApp appears to be first on the hit list. "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," Rudd said.

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"It used to be that people would steam open envelopes or listen in on phones when they wanted to find out what people were doing, legally, through warranty. But in this situation, we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp."

"It is completely unacceptable, there should be no place for terrorists to hide."

Home Office later said the Secretary was only talking in general terms about terrorists sending WhatsApp messages, not that the Westminster Bridge attacker had done so.

But it's not the government's war against user privacy that the internet is talking about today; it's one of Rudd's comments. Rudd said that the country wanted help from people who "understand the necessary hashtags." Say what? Here's the baffling comment in its entirety.

“The best people who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff ever being put up, not just taken down, but ever being put up in the first place are going to be them.”

Among others, Jimmy Wales also offered his help to the Home Secretary.

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The latest comments highlight a recurring clash between user privacy and national security. While governments have been pushing for an encryption-free world, tech companies believe their users' communications should stay private.

Rudd's comments have not only drawn mockery for the lack of government's understanding of technology, but also for the powers they seem to be demanding following these attacks. It once again questions that if global companies like Apple or WhatsApp will help countries like the US and the UK with a master key (or a backdoor, as they have been demanding), where would they draw a line when a government some day ask them to provide access to a dissident's communications? Not to forget the risks that are associated with open communications or a presence of a master key for normal users.

"Even if you trust the U.S. government, once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well," EFF, a civil liberties organization, had said during the Apple-FBI fight.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for internet privacy, said Rudd’s proposal would make communications less secure. "It is right that technology companies should help the police and intelligence agencies with investigations into specific crimes or terrorist activity where possible."

“However, compelling companies to put back doors into encrypted services would make millions of ordinary people less secure online," Killock added. "We all rely on encryption to protect our ability to communicate, shop and bank safely."