Political posturing about WhatsApp is a false flag in the war on terror

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 26, 2017
Something must be done about the balance between security and freedom on social platforms. What mustn't be done is sending another politician out onto the airwaves to demonstrate their technological ignorance.

The cynicism with which the mainstream media attacks its social media enemies is an unedifying sight. With Google and Facebook presenting an effective global duopoly dominating digital advertising, revenue-hungry newspapers will seize on any opportunity to lash out at the threat posted by social platforms.

This reached a new low last week after the terrorist attrocity in London when the Daily Mail’s naked Google-phobia went nuclear with the hysterical headline in the print edition that screamed “Google, the terrorists friend”.

While the rest of London was picking up the pieces, keeping calm and carrying on, Mail hacks were on the internet looking for instructions to terrorists about how to drive cars in crowds of people.

This, as the resulting ‘theory’ went, meant that Google was to blame. Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, the underlying message appeared to be that without having  instruction manuals to hand on Google, terrorists would be too thick to work out the ‘start vehicle, point at innocent civilians, release handbrake, drive’ sequence of events!

But at least the Daily Mail’s rabid hysteria is true to form and at the end of the day it’s no less than most people expect. What’s more worrying is when influential politicians get caught up in ‘social media to blame’ witchhunts. We’ve seen it frequently in recent months from Donald Trump, rattling the sabres in the direction of the likes of Apple.

This weekend it was the turn of UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd to come out with the ducking stool for the social media firms, most specifically WhatsApp, and to utter that most pointless of political posturing - Something. Must. Be. Done.

Back doors

In this instance, the something that Rudd had decided to do was to issue a series of bold accusations that social media firms aren’t doing enough to assist in the war on terror and to drill down on the need for an end to end-to-end encryption. That she was effectively calling for the trashing of e-commerce, online banking and essentially the whole digital economy presumably escaped her, as it was clear as the round of morning talk shows continued that Ms Rudd was, not to put too fine a point on it, out of her depth.

WhatsApp earned Rudd’s particular opprobium because of revelations that the London car terrorist Khalid Masood had used the app a few minutes before he launched his attack. While police and security services continue to believe that Masood was acting as a lone wolf, Rudd pushed the idea the use of platforms like WhatsApp as a terrorism communication network is unacceptable:

There should be no place for terrorists to hide. 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.

Tech firms, she went on, have to play a more active role in the fight against terrorism:

Each attack confirms again the role that the internet is playing in serving as a conduit, inciting and inspiring violence, and spreading extremist ideology of all kinds. We need the help of social media companies, the Googles, the Twitters, the Facebooks of this world...They cannot get away with saying they are in a different situation – they are not.

(It's worth noting at this point that WhatsApp has said it is "horrified" by the London attack and is in fact co-operating with law enforcement authorities.)

To tackle this extermist content, Rudd says she’s consulting with those who:

understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff even being put up.

Quite what a necessary hashtag is or what any of that means in practice was left unexplained.

Changed tune

Of particular ire to Rudd was the end-to-end encryption offered by WhatsApp, with the Home Secretary demanding a “back door” to allow the security services to access data whenever it was deemed appropriate. But between interviews, her views were modified, possibly by someone pointing out that end-to-end encrption is a binary proposition - something’s either encrypted or it isn’t.

So by the time Rudd had reached Sky News, she had morphed into an encryption fan when it's used by businesses, banks and families, just not terrorists:

End-to-end encryption has a place. Cybersecurity is really important and getting it wrong costs the economy and costs people money, so I support end-to-end encryption.

Those who understand technology somewhat more obviously than the Home Secretary distanced themselves from her comments. Antony Walker, Deputy CEO of tech industry association techUK, said technology firms are playing their part:

Tech companies take their responsibilities to work with the authorities on extremism and counter-terrorism investigations very seriously. Working within the strict confines of the law they engage daily in constructive and proven partnerships with security agencies, the police, policy makers and wider civil society bodies. Counter-terrorist operations would not succeed without the ongoing assistance and support of tech companies."

It is essential to consider the full range of security threats faced by the UK when discussing the use of end-to-end encryption. Encryption technologies are a fundamental tool for ensuring the UK remains cyber secure. End-to-end encryption is the best defence we have available to keep the data and services we all rely on safe from misuse. From storing data on the cloud to online banking to identity verification, end-to-end encryption is essential for preventing data being accessed illegally in ways that can harm consumers, business and our national security.

Jim Killock, executive director of internet privacy organisation The Open Rights Group, said:

It is right that technology companies should help the police and intelligence agencies with investigations into specific crimes or terrorist activity where possible. This help should be requested through warrants and the process should be properly regulated and monitored. However, compelling companies to put back doors into encrypted services would make millions of ordinary people less secure online. We all rely on encryption to protect our ability to communicate, shop and bank safely.

Meanwhile Major General Jonathan Shaw, formerly in charge of cyber-security at the Ministry of Defence, offered a damning assessement in an interview on Radio 4:

I think there’s a lot of politics at play here. There’s a debate in Parliament about the whole Snooper’s Charter and the rights of the state and I think they’re trying to use this moment to move the debate more in their line.

My take

Rudd’s comments over the weekend have elicited two sets of comments. On the one hand, slavish approval from the likes of the Daily Mail and other mainstream media outlets with advertising-driven barely-hidden agendas to promote. On the the other hand, bafflement from those who understand how technology works.

Terrorists live in houses, note those in the latter camp, therefore everyone must now leave their back doors unlocked in case the police need to get in! Terrorists read books, close down the book shops!

I’d add a third camp - those weary with the inevitably political grandstanding around social media that has become the norm. Nothing that Rudd was saying over the weekend was new. Former Prime Minster David Cameron was calling for a ban on encryption years back and promising to legislate on the subject. Of course, it came to nothing.

What will happen this week is that social media firms will be called in to see Rudd, given a photo opportunity ticking-off and sent on their way to think about their behaviour. Gloating headlines will appear in the Mail et al the following day, the Home Secretary will bask in her resolute response and we can all get back to business, leaving the security services to get on with the real counterterrorism activities.

The tragedy in all this is that there is a clear need for a societal and cross-industry debate around social media platforms and extremism. This is a new era we’re in, one in which a global terror threat has escalated at the same time as communication and content platforms have expanded their reach and their power. A balance does have to be found that protects essential freedoms, but also protects against extremism and threat.

So yes - Something. Must. Be. Done.

But going on TV to demonstrate a lack of understanding of technology while calling on tech firms to put their houses in order is not that something.

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