The revelation that the terrorist who killed four people in London in the end of March had accessed WhatsApp a few minutes before his attack has led to a public dispute that pits government authorities looking to maximize crime-fighting and anti-terror capabilities against private sector technology companies and privacy advocates. The dispute pits the legitimate interest of authorities in fighting terrorism, crime and corruption on the one hand, against the legitimate interest in privacy and protecting the public against criminals, identity thieves and illegal surveillance on the other.
The dispute revolves around encryption, which WhatsApp, along with other messaging services like Telegram, provides. Messages are end-to-end encrypted, meaning that they are encrypted before they leave the sender’s phone and after they arrive at the recipient’s phone. This means that the messages cannot be intercepted or hacked in the middle.
This provides a tremendous privacy benefit to users, and protects them from many types of hacking and surveillance. Of course, criminals and terrorists benefit from it as well—unless authorities can hack their phones, their communications are completely hidden. In this way, the protection offered to the general, law-abiding population also protects the worst and most dangerous individuals. It is with this background that U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd issued a call for WhatsApp to provide security services with access to encrypted messages. Her request echoes a 2016 dispute between the FBI and Apple over the encryption of a terrorist’s iPhone. That dispute was ultimately resolved by the FBI’s finding a way to break Apple’s encryption.
Ronald Noble, RKN Global’s founder, highlights the predicament posed by encryption. The same privacy measures that protect the public against scammers, hackers, thieves and other corrupt criminal elements also provide coverage and protection to those with the worst possible intent.
As it stands, police and investigative agencies are largely on their own in bypassing encrypted messages and devices. Apple refused a 2016 court order to help the FBI break its iPhone encryption, for example. However, authorities can still take advantage of vulnerabilities of criminals’ and terrorists’ devices, as often as possible, to view their messaging before it is encrypted. It certainly hampers their ability to thwart and investigate terrorism, but it is better than nothing.