Sacrificing our rights is a surrender of the values terrorists seek to destroy

Posted by Silkie Carlo on 31 March 2017

Last week’s terrorist attack was horrifying. From our office in Westminster, the sudden sound of sirens, racing police cars and then helicopters was chilling. As news came in of the lives lost, London was stunned to a sort of silence.

But the aftermath is characterised by the solidarity and British resilience we rely on for national healing.

The Prime Minister’s defiant statement reminded us that Parliament was targeted because of the values it represents: “democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law”. She reassured us in no uncertain terms: “any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure”.

But it wasn’t long before those values were put at risk.

Last weekend, Home Secretary Amber Rudd proffered yet another enlargement of the surveillance state, branding secure messengers like WhatsApp “completely unacceptable”. She called any messenger that gives users privacy a “hiding place for terrorists” – apparently forgetting that she uses one herself.

Rudd is attacking ‘end to end’ encryption, whereby only the sender and recipient can read their messages. The service provider (WhatsApp), and anyone intercepting the communications (as the British state routinely does, en masse) cannot decipher them. It’s just like two people having a private conversation alone in a room. By any democratic standards, pretty normal.

When the police or intelligence agencies suspect someone of serious crime, whether the suspect is using encrypted messengers or not, they have a range of intrusive means – including hacking – to spy on them.

Hacking a phone is like simultaneously bugging and raiding a property and taking a copy of every letter, file and book in the house – in minutes – without the owner ever knowing about it.

So why is the Home Secretary attacking WhatsApp?

Her incoherent statements about encryption, “the cloud”, and “necessary hashtags” are themselves quite difficult to decrypt – but seem about as logical as banning seatbelts. They might keep the rest of the population safe, but one also protected the attacker.

Rudd seems to be suggesting no service should provide end to end encryption – or, read simply, no service should provide privacy. And, given that a backdoor for the intelligence agencies could also let in criminals and foreign powers, she seems to think the population’s security is worth jeopardising – in the name of security, of course.

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.

The uncomfortable truth is that the British Government spies on its citizens – and while WhatsApp cannot shield individual targets from surveillance, such privacy-orientated services make it harder to spy on the rest of us.

The Home Secretary’s assault on WhatsApp in the wake of this appalling terrorist attack is draconian and misguided in equal measure – and erodes the values the Prime Minister promised to defend.

The former head of cybersecurity at the Ministry of Defence, Jonathan Shaw, delivered a frank warning on yesterday’s Today programme: “I think there’s a lot of politics at play here… I think what they’re trying to do is use this moment to nudge the debate more in their line”.

Sacrificing our rights is a feeble and unnecessary surrender of the values terrorists seek to destroy, while making us no safer, online or off. Sadly, an erosion of our civil liberties is one of the aftershocks we’ve come to expect in the wake of terror attacks – but it is one we are prepared for.

Liberty fought against State powers to compromise encryption and conduct suspicionless surveillance throughout the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act – and we’re still fighting them. We need to protect our freedoms now, more than ever. As Theresa May said, “our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism”.

Silkie Carlo

Silkie Carlo

Senior Advocacy Officer