British Home Secretary Amber Rudd says it’s time for technology companies to give law enforcement a way to decrypt private communications because terrorists shouldn’t have a way to secretly chat. Her comments come in the wake of a terrorist attack in London where five people were killed.
Rudd said she wants companies to stop making a “secret place for terrorists to communicate,” according to Reuters. She’s also targeting social media apps, like WhatsApp, that support end-to-end encryption.
Last week Khalid Masood drove his car through a crowd killing four people in London, then stabbed and killed a police officer as he tried to get into parliament. Reports say he sent an encrypted message shortly before launching his attack.
“It is completely unacceptable, there should be no place for terrorists to hide,” Rudd said. “We need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
She’s looking to convince technology companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, to give law enforcement a way to decrypt messages and data that are otherwise encrypted and secure.
Return of the Anti-encryption Argument
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI were pushing for Apple to do the same thing throughout 2016 in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings. In that case, police recovered a locked and encrypted iPhone from the shooters after they were killed in a fire fight.
The FBI turned to Apple for help with the iPhone and were able to recover data from the iCloud account linked to the phone. Apple doesn’t, however, have any way to bypass the iPhone’s built-in encryption so the FBI obtained a court order compelling Apple to make a version of iOS without the limit on how many passcode attempts you cam make before the device destroys all of the data it contains.
Apple fought the order saying it would pose a security risk for all iPhone owners even though the FBI insisted the hack was just for the one phone. The FBI’s claim quickly proved to be false as law enforcement agencies lined up to unlock iPhones they confiscated in criminal investigations.
The FBI dropped its case only hours before a scheduled court hearing after an independent company hacked into the iPhone. Apple never had to make the hackable iOS version.
Security experts criticized the DOJ and FBI saying a back door into our encrypted data is akin to no encryption at all because once someone has the ability to decrypt our data anyone can do it. Their point is that the back door you create for law enforcement is also a back door criminals and rogue governments can exploit.
The Same Anti-encryption Fight, but Different
Rudd says she’s not asking for the same thing the FBI pushed for. “This is something completely different,” she said. “We’re not saying open up, we don’t want to go into the Cloud, we don’t want to do all sorts of things like that.”
What she does want is a way for law enforcement to access encrypted data and communications, which is exactly what the DOJ and FBI were asking for. Either she doesn’t understand what she’s pushing for, or doesn’t want it to sound like a big deal.
Rudd’s comments will likely get the same pushback the U.S. government is already familiar with. Weakening encryption in one country is the same as weakening it around the world, and sows distrust in the companies making our smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Apple and other technology companies most likely won’t voluntarily comply with Rudd’s request. Instead, companies will continue to resist to protect their own reputations along with our personal data and security.