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Amber Rudd: I Don’t Need To Understand Encryption To Demand Change

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Tech firms should remember their ‘moral’ obligation to help fight militant attacks instead of ‘sneering’ at politicians, Rudd has said

Home secretary Amber Rudd has accused technology companies of “patronising” politicians, ahead of the planned announcement of new penalties for viewing militant online content.

Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Rudd said companies must do more to help government authorities access messages sent over services such as WhatsApp.

End-to-end encryption

Facebook-owned WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, meaning no one but the sending and receiving parties can read the message. The technology, also employed in other services offered by Facebook, Telegram, Google and others, means even the companies offering the service have no way of accessing the messages’ content.

Law enforcement authorities have voiced concern that such services are used to plot attacks.

WhatsApp
Rudd said she didn’t want to ban encryption or insert “back doors” into messaging technology, but wanted authorities to be able to access messages.

Asked by a member of the audience whether she understood the technical implications of end-to-end encryption, Rudd said she didn’t need to do so to see that it was helping “the criminals”.

“It’s so easy to be patronised in this business. We will do our best to understand it,” she said, according to reports.

“We will take advice from other people but I do feel that there is a sea of criticism for any of us who try and legislate in new areas, who will automatically be sneered at and laughed at for not getting it right.

“I don’t need to understand how encryption works to understand how it’s helping the criminals,” she continued. “I will engage with the security services to find the best way to combat that.”

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‘Moral’ obligation

Michael Beckerman, chief executive of the Internet Association, which represents Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other large US companies, told the meeting the home secretary’s goal was “understandable”, but he argued encryption was “just math and it has been invented it can’t uninvented”.

As such it could be used by any company, meaning that if legitimate companies switched it off users would simply start using other options.

But Rudd responded that such implications didn’t change the fact that Silicon Valley firms have a “moral” obligation to help combat militant attacks.

backdoor security encryption NSA © Sergey Nivens Shutterstock“I understand the principle of end-to-end encryption – it can’t be unwrapped. That’s what has been developed,” she said, according to the BBC. “What I am saying is the companies who are developing that should work with us… We don’t get that help – although we sometimes get it in a fulsome way after an event has taken place.”

Penalties for online viewing

Later on Tuesday Rudd is set to announce that those repeatedly viewing extremist content online face 15 years in prison, part of a review of government security strategy.

The changes strengthen existing provisions regarding the possession of information likely to be useful to militants, which currently apply only to materials that have been downloaded, saved or printed. The change means the penalties will also apply to materials repeatedly viewed or streamed online.

The change doesn’t apply to materials viewed only once and a “reasonable excuse” defence would still be available to academics, journalists or others with a legitimate reason to view such materials, Rudd is expected to say.

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