UK intelligence services need access to WhatsApp, minister says

Home secretary tells internet giants they must do more to tackle extremist content

Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, on the BBC’s ‘Andrew Marr Show’ on Sunday.  Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/via Reuters

Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, on the BBC’s ‘Andrew Marr Show’ on Sunday. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/via Reuters

 

Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, has told internet companies they must do more to tackle extremist content but said the UK is unlikely to follow Germany’s lead in fining technology firms which fail to remove hate speech.

Ms Rudd said it was “completely unacceptable” that terrorists can use messaging systems to avoid surveillance. “We need to make sure organisations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other,” she said.

She said that the government needed to allow intelligence services to be able to access WhatsApp messages in specific circumstances where they had a warrant. Internet companies were acting as a “conduit” for terrorists by failing to block extremist content, she added.

WhatsApp

There has been speculation that Khalid Masood, who perpetrated an attack on Wednesday that killed four people including a policeman just outside parliament, sent an encrypted message on WhatsApp just before he launched the attack.

“It is completely unacceptable. There should be no place for terrorists to hide,” Ms Rudd said.

End-to-end encryption means messages can be decoded only by the recipient and not by anyone in between, including the company providing the service.

Brian Paddick, a home affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats and former deputy assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, said the security services could already view “the content of suspected terrorists‘ encrypted messages”.

“The real question is: could lives have been saved in London last week if end-to-end encryption had been banned? All the evidence suggests that the answer is no.”

The attack on Wednesday looks set to reignite the privacy-versus-secrecy debate in Europe, especially after warnings from security officials that Western countries will be increasingly targeted as Islamic State loses ground in the Middle East.

Ms Rudd clarified that she was not opposed to encryption services intrinsically, saying they were useful for banks, businesses and families to communicate safely.

German plan

But she said she was “not sure” that Germany’s plan – to fine online companies up to €50 million for failing to remove content – “has been successful”. “I’d rather have a situation where we have the companies around the table agreeing to do something,” she told the Andrew Marr Show on the BBC.

The home secretary said the UK government had taken down 250,000 extremist items from the internet since 2010.

Separately Ms Rudd used an article in the Sunday Telegraph to name other websites such as Telegram, Justpaste.it and WordPress, urging them to take a more “proactive” role in tackling terrorist abuse of their platforms.

On the Andrew Marr Show, she also said the British government did not yet know what kind of cost there may be for trying to get the “widest possible access” to the European Union’s single market.

“I certainly do think that we should try to have the widest possible access to the single market . . . we don’t know what that cost would be, we don’t know that at all, that is going to be part of the negotiations,” Ms Rudd said. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017/Reuters)