In the wake of the Westminster attack, the three most powerful politicians in Britain have all called for access to encrypted WhatsApp messages which they say might have prevented Khalid Masood from plowing his hire car down the sidewalk of Westminster Bridge, before stabbing to death an unarmed police officer in the courtyard of “the Mother of all Parliaments.”
First it was the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, then it was the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and finally it was the Prime Minister, Theresa May.
This is first of all a nonsensical request. WhatsApp encryption is “end-to-end”, meaning the message is encrypted the moment it leaves the phone until it arrives at the recipients. Even WhatsApp, through whose servers millions of these automatically encrypted messages pass each day, cannot read the message once it is in transit. WhatsApp is being blamed because Masood is said to have used the app just minutes before the attack took place, and because blaming WhatsApp deflects from the failings of ministers to keep Britain’s most important buildings safe from even the most low-tech terrorist attack.
This is not to blame the police themselves, who do brave and important work – but to lay blame at the feet of the politicians who assign their budgets and thereby limit or invest in their capabilities to stop terrorism.
Police chiefs had already written to the government in November 2015 warning that further cuts to police numbers would make London more at risk of a “Paris-style” attack. Forty thousand police officers have been laid off since 2010. Gareth Thomas, Vice President of the Police Superintendents Association, wrote that “In the fight against all types of terrorism, we know that the long-term answer lies in families and in communities – and therefore, in neighbourhood policing. This is what can defeat terrorism; cyber intelligence often only helps us find it.”
Like any large institution, the intelligence community in Britain is by no means monolithic in opinion – and it is by no means certain whether more cyber-surveillance powers are even necessary. There are intelligence professionals who believe calls for more surveillance powers are unhelpful.
Former cyber-security chief Major General Jonathan Shaw has already publicly warned that the attack should not be “used”, in his words, to extend surveillance powers. In private, British intelligence professionals are like any European or American security service – they know that if absolutely necessary they can access the contents of WhatsApp conversations, though by means they are obviously not so keen on revealing in any detail.
A clue as to what these methods might be came recently via WikiLeaks. Despite all the bluster from the UK, our allies in the CIA already have ways of getting around WhatsApp encryption should they really require – essentially by hacking the phones before the messages are even sent.
Siding with hardliners
Instead of presenting this debate in an honest way, May is siding with the hardliners in the security community, not to mention long-term allies and part of her notoriously cliquey inner-circle.
The most frequent proponent of more surveillance powers, who undoubtedly has a hand in this most recent push, is a figure whose career is intimately connected with Theresa May. Civil servant-cum-spy, known as Whitehall’s top “securocrat”, the mysterious Charles Farr, is considered hawkish by colleagues, and was the mastermind of the notorious “Snoopers Charter”, which has been called “one of the most extreme surveillance laws” ever passed in a democracy.
Farr has made it his mission to turn Britain into a surveillance state. One official has called Farr’s view of himself simply “messianic”. He is heavily sponsored by May. In the closing months of the last government, she rushed to Farr’s defence against his critics.
In siding with her hardline friends in the intelligence community, and not listening to the more moderate voices with similar expertise, May is not only misdirecting from her own failings – notably on police cuts, but continuing a long tradition of “do something” policymaking.
The “do something” doctrine demands that something must be done in the wake of a terrorist attack. Whether this newly conjured policy makes sense, has any substantive merit, or will make Britain safer, is entirely irrelevant. It is far more important to just “do something”.
It is for this reason that 13 terrorism Acts of Parliament have been passed in Britain since 2000 – each more intrusive than the last. In that same time there have been just five education Acts, three health Acts, and only three housing Acts. Explaining this disparity in legislative focus only makes sense when you consider the grip of “do something” politics on Britain’s elite.
In this case, asking for WhatsApp encrypted message access is a nonsensical request, and nor does it reflect anything but the more hardline desires of certain unpopular figures within the security services. It is a superficial ploy – and it has worked. Front-page headlines the day after the calls were made included “Tech giants face terror crackdown”, “Internet giants hide terrorist’s final note”, “Apps rapped over secret terror texts” and on the front page of Britain’s most popular tabloid, “What side are you on, WhatsApp?”.
There was little serious discussion of the fact that police chiefs had warned repeatedly that police cuts would have a knock-on effect on counter-terrorism efforts; very handy for May, of course – given it was she who, as Home Secretary, oversaw these cuts in the first place.