WhatsAppening to our privacy?

Last week, in the aftermath of the Westminster attacks, the Sun ran the headline What Side are you on WhatsApp? This was in response to the tech giant’s refusal to create a back door for government officials to access encrypted content.

The Sun appeared to be supporting Amber Rudd’s argument that WhatsApp was putting profits before the public good. However, this dichotomy between bad communications companies and good anti-terror legislation is about as nuanced as Donald Trump’s knowledge of nuclear energy.

The antagonism towards WhatsApp sits against a backdrop of ever-increasing government surveillance. The investigatory powers act became law last year, allowing the government to hack private equipment and bulk collect communications data. Last month, there were revelations that GCHQ were interfering with all manner of devices from Samsung TV’s, to android phones, to smart cars, with the ability to turn on recording devices. What is most infuriating is how inefficient this is. If Theresa may wanted three hours footage of me wondering around in my underwear, I would have been happy to arrange a skype date.

Importantly, the effectiveness of these measures in anti-terrorism and anti-cybercrime is doubtful. As Major General Jonathan Shaw stated, providing an absolutist solution will do little as “the problem will mutate and move on.” If Britain or America were to ban end-to-end encryption, customers would simply move from WhatsApp and Apple to less accountable providers based abroad such as the European company, Telegram.

In fact, creating a back door only makes consumers less secure. Online banking, for example, would be more susceptible to cyber-crime. Victims of abusive partners may become more vulnerable to online stalking.

Cyber-criminals are not the only ones likely to misuse such decryption. In America, where extensive anti-terror legislation has been active for some time, a Cleveland police officer was recently found to have unlawfully used anti-terrorism powers to access the private phone records of journalists and a solicitor.

To allow the government to ban, or have access to, encrypted information, puts Orwellian trust in the state.

Talking of Orwell, these measures, at least according to Edward Snowden, go “further than many autocracies.” Significantly, the impetus is coming from the government not from intelligence communities. Given this, combined with the ineffectiveness of the measures, it appears that rather than WhatsApp putting profits before the public good, the government are putting power before it.

Published in the Stroud News and Journal 8th April, 2017.