There is a face-off between WhatsApp and the UK government happening right now, and the world is watching.
Frictions surround the use by the Facebook-owned messaging and voice software of end-to-end encryption that makes data impossible to intercept. Communications between criminals or extremists on the system (and similar digital platforms) cannot be monitored, a source of frustration for government. The UK Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has asked WhatsApp to help them gain this kind of access. The government has the Investigatory Powers Act (also known as the Snoopers Charter) to possibly force compliance. But such a move could force WhatsApp, and companies like them who rely on the integrity of their security protocols for their users’ privacy, to desert the UK market.
Europe, Brexit, and Cybersecurity
And there’s an added complication: The European Parliament has passed a resolution that moves in the opposite direction. They have explicitly stated that member states should not “impose any obligation on encryption providers that would result in the weakening or compromising of the security of their networks or services, such as the creation or facilitation of ‘back doors’”. So until Brexit is officially over, the fight could only get more complicated.
Encryption is here to stay
The trouble with proposing a weakening of encryption is that the genie is already out of the bottle. This computing concept is already freely available to developers worldwide. It could be removed from WhatsApp and other platforms, only for others to spring up in their place to provide the service. The compromise of end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp will likely mean that users who rely on high levels of privacy – for legal or illegal means – will switch platforms, making it harder find them. And this will have the knock-on effect that legitimate users will face a system more vulnerable to hacks and exploits.
The world is watching. If the UK gets its way, other countries could follow suit.