After last week’s attack in London, and all the talk of tech giants not doing enough to prevent the terrorism-inclined from getting clued up on how to go about their murderous business, we have the spectacle of other tech firms being upbraided for being too secretive, not least messaging specialist WhatsApp, which Khalid Masood is said to have been using before launching his hired Hyundai into the crowds on Westminster Bridge.
Amber Rudd holds The Internet in her hands (allegedly - thanks to Tim Ireland)
With this as the backdrop, home secretary Amber Rudd presented herself for questioning by the host on The Andy Marr Show (tm) this morning, and very quickly demonstrated that she is not only proficient in bullshitting, she is also woefully short of knowledge on the subject which just happened to be under discussion: the technology used in messaging apps, and especially the use of security - like end to end encryption.
Marr put it to her that terrorists being able to keep their messages secret was totally unacceptable. Ms Rudd was not obliged to go along with that suggestion - she could have made good arguments for privacy - but instead replied “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 … on this situation we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted Whatsapp”.
Ho yus. There is a teensy problem with this idea: allowing the spooks - who, let us not forget, have leaked and been caused to leak information at a non-trivial rate in recent years - to break the encryption of WhatsApp, or indeed any app, leads inevitably to the criminal element following along behind. Worse, those criminals may have their back door into those apps leaked in turn to terrorists - and there we are back at Square One.
It got worse for Ms Rudd when Marr mentioned the arguments between Apple and the intelligence agencies in the USA: her view was “We’re not saying open up, we don’t want to go into the cloud, we don’t want to do all sorts of things like that, but we do want them to recognise they have a responsibility to engage with government, to engage with law enforcement agencies when there is a terrorist situation”.
So what did she mean? Marr specifically cited the argument around having a back door into security, and this only made the home secretary’s ignorance more visible: “I would ask Tim Cook to think again about other ways of finding out, of helping us work out, how we can get into situations like Whatsapp on the Apple phone”. Yeah, right.
WhatsApp is not an Apple product; it is an independent company. Cook is not going to be able to help anyone to crack another firm’s encryption. Anyhow, what about that end-to-end encryption? “I do agree what we have to have a situation where we can have our security services get into the terrorist communications, that’s absolutely the case”.
Well, if she isn’t talking about a back door, what the hell is she talking about? Does Amber Rudd not know that organisations like GCHQ hoover up data in bulk; they don’t do one-off trawls on the fly, and certainly not when the person involved - as Khalid Masood was - is not even on their radar. The interview was not progressing well.
Would she favour using the model used in Germany, where sites allowing proscribed content are liable to be fined? “I’m not sure the German plan has been entirely successful”. Why not? What useful alternative can she muster? “I know it sounds a bit like we’re stepping away from legislation but we’re not … I’d like to have an industry - wide board set up where they do it themselves. They could do this, I want to make sure they do”.
Without any stick, or perhaps even without any carrot? What was she actually driving at? “What I’m saying is the best people, who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff even being put up, not just taking it down, but stop putting it up in the first place, are going to be them”.
It was all about “the necessary hashtags”. It was at this point that anyone sitting on the fence over Ms Rudd’s ability to understand one end of Information Technology from the other should have heard the warning klaxon sounding long and loud. She doesn’t like encryption, but it keeps all those tens of millions of online transactions that take place every hour of the day safe and secure. Would she want to see that endangered?
Does she want to leave peoples’ privacy open to abuse by anyone with criminal intent? Because as soon as there is a back door into any secure technology, it ain’t going to remain secure for long. And how does she think she will get tech firms to be cooperative with Governments and their agencies without both carrots and sticks - as well as having a minister who knows what he or she is talking about?
Amber Rudd was a totally unconvincing interviewee. And if the Government cannot do any better, we need to know why. Someone send Amber Rudd a copy of I T for Dummies.