This WhatsApp feature is proving to be a nightmare for govts worldwide

Published: March 29, 2017

The recent deadly attack in London’s Westminster has once again highlighted the widening issue of privacy versus national security.

British media outlets have reported that Khalid Masood, the attacker who killed four people in his terror rampage, was using the popular messaging service WhatsApp moments before he launched his assault.

Authorities are now trying to gain access to messages sent by Masood in an ongoing investigation to find the attacker’s motives and possible accomplices. This, however, is not as simple as it may seem.

Facebook owned WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption to its messaging platform in April last year which allows it to encrypt every call, message, photo, video and file sent through the app. This means that messages sent are only legible to those who are intended to receive them, in essence ending the possibility of snooping by potential hackers.

New arrest over London attack as govt eyes WhatsApp

However, the security feature seems to have unintentionally created a space where terrorist and extremists can communicate freely without the risk of being spied on by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd issued a statement in a press conference after the Westminster attack highlighting the significance of the security lapse that such services have created.

“You can’t have a situation where you have terrorists talking to each other — where this terrorist sent a WhatsApp message — and it can’t be accessed,” she said.

She went on to say, “We need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp – and there are plenty of others like that – don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.”

A similar situation was face by US law enforcement authorities last year after the deadly San Bernardino shooting that claimed 14 lives. Authorities fought a legal battle with tech giant Apple to get it to unlock a smartphone used by one of the shooters.

The smartphone was eventually unlocked by the FBI through a third party, after Apple declined a request to build a new software that would enable authorities to unlock the recovered iPhone 5C.

End-to-end encryption on messaging services is unacceptable – UK minister

Security features such as end-to-end encryption and two-factor verification are widely used by tech firms to protect users against ever growing threats of hacking and state sponsored surveillance.

However, tech firms and social media players are now coming under increasing pressure over extremists using their websites, applications and technology to communicate extremist content.

The proposal for creating backdoor access for authorities that can be used is such situations has faced strong criticism for the tech sector who argue that such backdoor access not only open communications data to government agencies, but cybercriminals too.

The debate of whether tech firms should value privacy of its users more than national security seems to remain inconclusive.

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