Messaging service WhatsApp has been accused by the British government of giving terrorists “a safe place to hide”, after refusing to hand over messages communicated by the perpetrator of last week’s deadly terror attacks in London.
Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary, said that services like WhatsApp, which is owned by social media giant Facebook, must “engage with government, to engage with law enforcement agencies, when there is a terrorist situation.”
Adrian Ajao, a British-born 52-year-old who went by his Muslim name, Khalid Masood, ran over and killed three people on Westminster Bridge, a major thoroughfare in the capital, before crashing into the gardens of the Houses of Parliament. There he stabbed to death PC Keith Palmer before being shot by police officers.
Ajao used WhatsApp to communicate just three minutes before carrying out the attack. But, the company argues, its end-to-end encryption means that not even its own employees can infiltrate messages.
That has enraged Rudd and colleagues in Westminster, who have summoned WhatsApp, Google, Facebook and other leading tech firms to talks this Thursday. The former, which has previously announced that “privacy and security are in our DNA,” will face stiff questioning from Home Office officials seeking more information about the attackers motives and suspected cohort.
“We need to make sure that organizations like WhatsApp, and plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other,” said Rudd.
The minister will likely face opposition from the technology industry, which has increasingly rallied against state surveillance, and her own party: former Prime Minister David Cameron lobbied for messaging firms to open a “backdoor” to intelligence services in 2015. But the proposition was dropped amid calls of overreach from the private sector and rightwing libertarians in his own Conservative party.
In the same year Brazilian authorities blocked WhatsApp, which has over a billion users, from its mobile telecommunications network after it refused access to messages sent by drug dealers. Zimbabwe has also blocked the platform to avoid popular uprisings against its despotic leader Robert Mugabe.
A growing divide has opened between those arguing for greater state control over messaging apps, and those committed to greater privacy online. Companies like Telegram, Signal and Confide have led a privacy charge. But the use of those services by criminal groups has amplified voices such as Rudd’s, in the wake of increased asymmetrical warfare worldwide.
Last year Apple was embroiled in a similar controversy, having refused to unlock an iPhone used by the perpetrators of the 2015 San Bernadino shootings, which claimed 14 lives in the Californian city. The FBI eventually got around Apple’s security using a third-party contractor.