The British Home Secretary says that intelligence agencies should be allowed access to encrypted WhatsApp accounts following the London attack.
“We need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp,” British Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the BBC on Sunday in response to the March 22 attack in London where the alleged terrorist reportedly sent a message on WhatsApp minutes before the 82 second rampage.
With this remark, Secretary Rudd unleashed a media frenzy that has cybersecurity experts questioning her vague knowledge about how encryption actually works.
In an article for The Guardian, journalist Jonathan Haynes referenced the work of cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier on what actually happens once a backdoor is provided to technologies used by the likes of WhatsApp.
“If a backdoor exists, then anyone can exploit it. All it takes is knowledge of the backdoor and the capability to exploit it. And while it might temporarily be a secret, it’s a fragile secret. Backdoors are how everyone attacks computer systems,” Schneier wrote in his blog in February, 2016.
If intelligence agencies ever “have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp,” as the home secretary so eloquently described, it would open the backdoor to anyone else who wanted to exploit the platform’s cybersecurity, including criminals.
What happened to ‘freedom’ following 9/11
What Rudd wishes is to give British intelligence agencies even more spying power over ordinary citizens. The same was true in the United States following 9/11.
According to the 2009 Report on the President’s Surveillance Program: Volume I, in response to the 9/11 attacks, “President George W. Bush issued a Top Secret authorization to the Secretary of Defense directing that the signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities of the NSA be used to detect and prevent further attacks in the United States.
The Presidential Authorization stated that an extraordinary emergency existed permitting the use of electronic surveillance within the United States for counterterrorism purposes, without a court order, under certain circumstances [author’s emphasis].”
The events of a single day in September, 2001 led to the spying of millions of citizens, foreign and domestic, accompanied by the infamous Patriot Act.
More sophisticated spying capabilities
Just as British Home Secretary Rudd would like to give the government more spying power, the recent Vault 7 “Dark Matter” WikiLeaks dump has shown just how sophisticated and intrusive intelligence agencies have become in the US.
WikiLeaks exposed that the CIA had been installing tracking beacons called NightSkies in “factory-fresh” iPhones as far back as 2008.
Similarly, Macintosh computers were infiltrated through Project Sonic Screwdriver, an infector that “was a “mechanism for executing code on peripheral devices while a Mac laptop or desktop is booting” allowing an attacker to boot its attack software for example from a USB stick “even when a firmware password is enabled.”
If Rudd were to have her way…
If Secretary Rudd were to have her way, she would give the green light to intelligence agencies — granting them legal authority to expand their spying powers greater than what they already are.
Whether the alleged terrorist of the London attack was a “lone wolf” or was part of an overall conspiracy to enact new policy is of little consequence and I’m not about to go down that rabbit hole, as twisted and fascinating as it may be.
The real consequence is that people in government like Secretary Rudd are calling for more powerful spying capabilities that would ultimately erode the privacy of the people.
She would see a backdoor to WhatsApp’s security that would not only spy on civilians, but allow criminals to gain access to users’ accounts, all because she doesn’t want a “place for terrorists” to hide.
Throughout history, whether it be the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that launched the first World War, Pearl Harbor in the Second, the Gulf of Tonkin incident for Vietnam, or the attacks on 9/11, one thing is certainly clear — the overreactions and subsequent casualties through war and intolerance have far outweighed the casualties of the events themselves.
Conspiracy or not…
When dealing with responses to alleged terrorist attacks, one must be careful where treading. The Internet is full of conspiracies, but there is often an underlying element of truth. One way of analyzing what impact a “terrorist” attack has on a society is to look at how laws are changed.
Conspiracy or not, what often happens in the wake of an attack is that civil liberties are eroded while racial, ethnic, and religious tensions are spurred.
According to a report prepared for a presentation at the 25th Anniversary Conflict Studies Conference entitled “Reactions and Overreactions to Terrorism,” John Mueller of Ohio State University’s Department of Political Science pointed out that “terrorism’s historical impact seems to have derived much more from the reaction, or overreaction, it inspired than from anything the terrorists accomplished on their own.”
John Mueller’s interview on The Daily Show in 2006
What Mueller was getting at was that oftentimes acts of terror are used by governments as a precedence for putting in motion policies that had already been planned, but were unable to be implemented pending a catastrophic event such as a terrorist attack.
According to Mueller, “The terrorist acts do not ‘trigger’ or ’cause’ these historically-significant ventures, but rather facilitate them by shifting the emotional or political situation, potentially making a policy desired for other reasons by some political actors possible but no more necessary than it was before the terrorist act took place.”