THE BLOG

Amber Rudd's Attacks On Whatsapp And Privacy Are Both Silly And Sinister

01/08/2017 16:04
Hannah Mckay / Reuters

The Home Secretary is on a mission to set the record straight. After a string of perplexing, passionately ignorant interviews in which she attacked WhatsApp and hashtags as the tools of terrorists earlier this year, Amber Rudd has jetted off to Silicon Valley to explain what she really wants tech companies to do.

That her clarification started with "We don't want to ban encryption, but..." is not a good sign. That she described "trade-offs between security and usability" as "opportunities" is chilling.

Bear one thing in mind when you hear the Government attacking encryption - they are attacking nothing less than your basic human rights.

End-to-end encryption, core to popular messengers such as WhatsApp and Signal, gives our online conversations the same level of privacy that we usually have in the offline world. It's like having a private conversation in a room - only the people in the conversation can read the messages. WhatsApp, criminals, stalkers, or jealous partners can't listen in - and neither can the State.

But Rudd is demanding that we sacrifice our private lives in the name of tackling terrorism. Her attack is as ignorant as it is authoritarian.

The police and intelligence agencies have a range of intrusive means - including hacking - to spy on the phones of terror suspects, regardless of whether they are using encrypted messengers.

Think back to the private conversation in a room that WhatsApp offers you. Hacking a phone is like simultaneously bugging and raiding that room, while also taking a copy of every letter, file and book in every room in the house - without the owner ever knowing about it.

So why is Rudd persisting with this unnecessary attack on the world's most popular messenger?

The uncomfortable truth is that the British Government spies on its citizens - and while WhatsApp cannot shield individual targets from surveillance, end-to-end encryption makes it harder and more expensive for the State to spy on the rest of us.

Rudd says "real people" don't mind the Government having a snoop - only terrorists care about privacy. I fear, somewhere between the political elite's WhatsApp group chats and the glittering corridors of Whitehall, Rudd may have lost her grip on what "real people" want - including the one billion people around the world who use WhatsApp every single day.

In a digital world plagued by State surveillance, cyberattacks, hacks and leaks, those billion real people care about privacy more than ever. They know that encryption is our first line of defence.

And as a human rights organisation, we at Liberty work with people who truly rely on encryption for their protection from criminals or from the abuses of state surveillance. For whistleblowers, activists, journalists, sources, lawyers and victims of abuse, encryption is a lifeline. Are they not "real people" in the Home Secretary's eyes?

In some countries, the simple liberty of a private conversation that WhatsApp offers can even be life-saving, whether for LGBT people or those fighting state oppression. What example does our Government set for the rest of the world with its self-professed 'world-leading' attacks on privacy?

It's worth noting that both China and Russia have banned VPNs this week - software that allows citizens to privately browse the web beyond the gaze of the State.

And citing UK law against encryption, the Australian Prime Minister was recently emboldened to make one of his greatest gaffes - declaring that the laws of Australia trump the laws of maths.

The scary thing is the Home Secretary's words are more than an empty threat. The Investigatory Powers Act which passed into law at the end of 2016 actually gives Rudd the power to go ahead and backdoor the entire WhatsApp service in total secrecy - without us even knowing about it.

So Liberty is taking the Government to court. Sacrificing our rights is a feeble and unnecessary surrender of the values terrorists seek to destroy - and it doesn't even make us safer, online or off.

Privacy is a fundamental human right and a necessity in the modern world. Our Government's attempt to rebrand it as the refuge of terrorists shows a painful disregard for basic democratic principles and traditional conservative values. It will not wash. We will not stand for it and, we hope, neither will Silicon Valley.

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