Terrorists have hit the U.K. hard this year; attacks at the Manchester Arena, Westminster, London Bridge and most recently at the Parson Green Tube station have the security services worried. Proactive effort to stop new attacks are being foiled by messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Apple iMessage, which feature end-to-end encryption. Terrorist groups are recruiting, plotting and directing attacks with impunity and the U.K. government is mad. Prime Minister Theresa May is asking technology companies to find a way for security services to access encrypted conversations on messaging apps.
WhatsApp has told the government that they cannot provide the contents of encrypted messages; they do not have access to the messages either. The company will provide law enforcement the information that they do collect, such as the email associated with the account, when applicable, but they will not create a backdoor.
While the UK’s Home Secretary has stated that it is possible to access the content end-to-end encrypted messages without creating a backdoor, she is mistaken. Claims that the tech companies need to sit down with the government and work out a confidential solution implies that WhatsApp and other instant messaging apps could develop a solution and retain their end-to-end encryption if they wanted to, which is not true. Cybersecurity experts say that forcing access into encryption algorithms weakens the system, however, few lawmakers and politicians completely understand encryption.
The vast majority of WhatsApp’s one billion daily users are not terrorists; they are simply worried about security and government surveillance. News about Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance and the Investigatory Surveillance Act that allows for extreme snooping has people worried. There are numerous reasons that people would want to keep their messages private, including cheating on one’s spouse or discussing medical issues.
While WhatsApp posts a conciliatory message to law enforcement on their website, critics of May and the Home Secretary say that they are focusing on the wrong thing. Instant messaging apps are a tool used by terrorists, critics claim, and the government needs to focus on the reasons why individuals commit violent acts. Even if the U.K. government forced app stores to ban services such as WhatsApp, tech savvy terrorists would find a workaround.
If no one except the recipient ever sees the WhatsApp messages, it is impossible to say exactly what violent extremists are saying to each other. They are most likely plotting attacks, however, the safest way for them is to do this in person, which they know. The government having a backdoor to any messaging system will not deter individuals bent on committing terrorist acts. Jihadist materials, recruitment propaganda and detailed plans for attacks reached potential terrorists long before WhatsApp launched in 2010.