What’s App, encryption and intelligence agency access – quick comment

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The weekend before last, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd did the rounds on the Sunday morning political chat shows, in the wake of the Westminster terrorist attack. Her comments around encryption, tech companies and their role in the fight against extremism and terrorism have (as she no doubt intended) dominated the news cycle and shaped the public post-mortem into the attack.

In response, I tweeted some initial thoughts, which I’ve included below in a slightly less condensed format:

As many have observed, Rudd’s comments appear opportunistic at best, given what we know about London attacker so far. Most obviously, as he wasn’t under active investigation, access to What’s App or other encrypted services would have been irrelevant in his specific case.

Her comments and the reaction to them are however, yet another example of the simplistic debate that surrounds the encryption issue, and help to conflate different aspects of the problem.

Access to encrypted communications differs pre, during & post investigation. In the context of the Westminster attack, only the latter appears to apply. The battle between the FBI and Apple over the iphone of the San Bernadino attacker also falls under this category. However, Rudd’s reference to ‘terrorist communications’, presumably therefore refers to  those under investigation.

Few would argue that the UK authorities should be able to access these communications. But in terms of approach, accessing the communications of known terrorists is very different to making an assessment of potential leads. In the former example, the authorities have options beyond direct warranted access; these aren’t easy, they require significant resource, and most importantly, they are not available to all agencies, most notably law enforcement bodies.

But given the range of powers in the IP Act, and how recently it was passed, it is hard for Rudd to argue that the UK is ill-equipped to counter the threat of known terrorists. 

Assessing the threat posed by intelligence leads however, is a separate issue. The initial intelligence picture is often very limited – this could be a tip-off from a  national or international partner agency, a write in or phone call, or a connection to a known extremist under investigation.

It is particularly hard for the police or MI5 to adequately prioritise these leads, when the value of their traditional first port of call – ‘wire taps’ or communications data analysis – is limited by encryption. In these circumstances, it is not proportionate or resource appropriate to ‘lawfully hack’ to bypass encryption. The alternative, HUMINT-led approach is similarly resource intensive and potentially disproportionate.

What this all means is that while the UK is equipped to monitor the known knowns (even though this remains very difficult), triaging new leads is a separate issue in the context of encryption. That of course doesn’t mean that ‘backdoors’ into encrypted services are the answer. But we need to be clear on the nature of the different problems facing intelligence agencies. And most importantly, have a grown-up conversation about new terrorism realities. Must we always apportion blame beyond the attacker?

Following my comments, I appeared on BBC Radio 4 PM and the Today programme (see below for links) to discuss this in greater detail:

A week and a half later, it’s clear that Rudd’s intervention has broadly had the desired effect. While few in the intelligence community as a whole – probably including Rudd herself – would argue in the cold light of day that a backdoor into What’s App would significantly improve the UK’s counter-terrorism capability, her comments quickly shifted the media focus away from looking for any mistakes on the part of the UK authorities; instead, Google, Facebook, What’s App and the rest have endured nearly two weeks of bad publicity.

In the wider context of needing more help from the private sector in the battle to counter online extremist material, it remains unclear whether this publicity and pressure makes them more or less likely to deliver the type of support that the UK Government wants and needs.


One thought on “What’s App, encryption and intelligence agency access – quick comment

    David said:
    April 8, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    So once more the public are distracted by a new Home Secretary, who faithfully follows the Home Office mantra “We need more powers”. Thank you for giving a more rounded explanation.


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