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March 30, 2017updated 03 Apr 2017 4:53pm

Why Amber Rudd’s WhatsApp encryption obsession will not stop terrorists

The UK Home Secretary has revived the encryption debate - a debate which threatens the privacy of every UK citizen.

By Ellie Burns

UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd is set to meet tech bosses today, with the likes of Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook set to be given the third degree over encryption practices.

amber rudd

UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd

The Home Secretary has ignited fresh debate over encryption following a BBC on Sunday interview where she discussed the recent attack in Westminster. In the interview Rudd made bold statements that were pointedly directed at WhatsApp, saying:

“We need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp – and there are plenty of others like that – don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.”

READ MORE: WhatsApp encryption helps terrorists hide, says Home Secretary Amber Rudd

Her remarks, however, have been heavily criticised, with many questioning why she launched such a blistering attack on tech and, in particular, WhatsApp.

Apparently prompting Rudd’s comments was the movements of the murderer Khalid Masood prior to his attack in Westminster. Although authorities have confirmed that Masood acted alone, Rudd jumped on the fact WhatsApp had been used by the killer in the moments leading up to the attack.

One man who knows peer-to-peer encryption, as well as government, is Bill Conner, CEO of SonicWall. The ex-NATO and Interpol cyber security adviser also boasts past CEO roles at firms like encrypted communications firm Silent Circle. If one man knows encryption, it’s Conner, and for him Rudd’s targeting of encryption will do very little to stop terrorists and terrorism.

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“Encryption is available worldwide – you pick on WhatsApp, but you think that is going to stop bad guys from using it? There’s tens of thousands of different email peer-to-peer encryptions that they can use, so trying to regulate the good people that are using it versus bad guys are going to find it anyway, what are you really doing?” The SonicWall CEO told CBR.

“Snowden still got in didn’t he? Organised crime always got people into police didn’t they? They always get them into government, don’t they? There is no backdoor, it’s someone else’s front door.”

This debate also centres around the assumption that government cannot bypass encryption anyway – of course they can. One only need look at the recent WikiLeaks revelations to understand that governments have the required muscle and more to snoop and hack into the devices and comms of citizens.

“Believe me, they have a million techniques. If the government wants in there’s nowhere to hide, they don’t care who you are,” said Conner, who in the past has advised the US Department of Homeland Security.

So why then, is Amber Rudd going after the big tech companies and WhatsApp encryption? It is understood that Rudd will today lead a roundtable discussion with tech giants to urge them to do more in fighting terrorist propaganda online. Encryption is also to be discussed, with Rudd set to raise her concerns in separate discussions. There has been no talk about prison radicalisation or the failings of security watch lists, which could all be included in the discourse surrounding the Westminster murderer. Instead the big name firms of Apple and Facebook are sure to grab the headlines and position Rudd in a favourable light – the onus is on them after all to take steps against the spread of terrorism. The question, however, is what Rudd is doing – she is responsible for national security.

Bill Conner, SonicWall CEO

“Well what happened to you doing your work?” Conner rhetorically asked when pressed on his thoughts regarding Rudd’s BBC’s interview.

“Instead of trying to take advantage of all the good people’s privacy and all the technology innovation that we are doing, you are trying to dumb it down because you don’t want to do the work that you should do in an enabled age.”

For those sceptical of Amber Rudd’s motivations, she has done a great job of deflecting attention from her own security failings and pointing the finger of blame at big, household names. However, this is a dangerous issue, with the privacy rights of UK citizens under threat:

“Going after Apple, going after Google or Facebook is interesting, but there is a right to privacy,” Conner told CBR.

Security pros know that any weakening of encryption will act as a huge welcome sign to hackers, hitting any notion of security at its very core. What with the Snooper’s Charter, the UK is edging closer and closer to Orwell’s 1984.

The encryption debate is one which should be taken very seriously – at the end of the day, Rudd’s motivations behind her attack on tech are irrelevant. What is important is that the attack is happening.


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