Amber Rudd has been warned by a Tory MP that giving government the ability to read encrypted WhatsApp messages will also open up access to criminals “like rats up a drainpipe”.
In the wake of the Westminster attack, the home secretary has said it is “completely unacceptable” that messaging services provided “a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other”.
But Andrew Murrison, a former Conservative security minister, said “more intrusion and the incremental destruction of our traditional freedoms and liberties” was “precisely the outcome violent jihadists want”.
“The issues that continue to worry me are that state and non-state actors, hackers and criminal low life will exploit any and all opportunities offered by leaky bulk data sets and the weakening of encryption implied by the creation of backdoors,” he said.
Writing on Politics Home, the former minister added: “If the state insists on providers creating backdoors into personal data, I’d give good odds on it not just being warranted public servants turning the key. Bad men will be in there too like rats up a drainpipe.”
Khalid Masood, who carried out the attack on Westminster, is reported to have used the app seconds before mowing down pedestrians at speed and storming the parliamentary estate armed with two knives last week.
WhatsApp said in response that it had been assisting the police investigation. A spokeswoman said: “We are horrified at the attack carried out in London earlier this week and are co-operating with law enforcement as they continue their investigations.”
On Sunday, Rudd told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme: “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.
“It used to be that people would steam-open envelopes or just listen in on phones when they wanted to find out what people were doing, legally, through warrantry.
“But on this situation we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
Her call for access was branded “draconian” by one former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner.
Lib Dem Lord Paddick said: “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.”