The Encryption Conundrum: How Terrorism Is Driving Today’s Privacy Discussion

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WhatsApp becomes the latest centre of attention as encryption vs privacy debate once again rears its head

Rudd insisted that tech firms “have a responsibility to engage with government, to engage with law enforcement agencies when there is a terrorist situation”, but it could also be argued that they have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their users, which encryption is central to achieving.

And that, unfortunately is the sticking point. There has been much talk of ‘backdoors’ and rules that would allow government agencies to access encrypted data if required but, to members of the public, this triggers concerns around mass government surveillance.

In an effort to get another perspective on the issues surrounding encryption and WhatsApp in particular, Silicon recently spoke to Chris Phillips, former head of national counter terrorism for the UK government.

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He described the encryption debate as “an absolutely fascinating one” and agreed with Rudd that some kind of system needs to be put in place so that governments are able to access encrypted data in the event of a potential terrorist attack.

“If you’re talking on a telephone and I know you’re a terrorist, I can go to the government and say I want to listen. You can’t do that on WhatsApp and I think we’ve got to find a way of actually plugging some of these security holes. 

“What we’re saying is if someone is a known terrorist or a known serious criminal, we’d like to be able to find out who they’re talking to and what they’re saying and I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I think the man in the street would thing that’s very reasonable. But there’s a fear that goes alongside that which says the government will start watching everyone, but the ludicrousness of that they haven’t got enough man power to just monitor the really bad people.

“So what I would be interested in is laws made at a time when terrorist attacks aren’t happening so you can have a sensible discussion, giving police the powers to deal with these problems. And it comes down to the companies actually putting gaps in their systems, which they don’t want to do.”

The final point is the most important one. Governments can lobby for backdoor access all they want, but the truth is that the tech firms are the ones with all the innovation and without their cooperation, there’s not much that outside organisations can do.

“I think there’s got to be a system where at some stage you can say you’re a really bad guy, you’ve done something bad, so we can go back and look at you,” Phillips said. “But the only way that’s going to happen is for the tech firms to make it so.”

So, will they or won’t they? It’s a regrettable fact of life that this debate is being driven by horrific acts of terrorism and, as there is no simple answer in sight, it’s one that is likely to rage on for some time.

Technology companies and governments both have a responsibility to  protect their users and citizens, but only through cooperation will that be truly achievable.

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