British government officials will meet with representatives of US technology companies this week to demand that they do more to help in the fight against terrorism and online hate speech, the latest move in a widening global push against encryption technology that blocks access to the private messages of criminal and innocent users alike.
The meeting, set for Thursday, comes after Amber Rudd (pic) , Britain’s Home Secretary, said that the country’s intelligence agencies should have access to encrypted messages sent through WhatsApp, an instant-messaging service owned by Facebook. Her remarks are in response to the terrorist attack on Wednesday in London.
After several terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere, the region’s lawmakers and regulators, as well as some of their counterparts in the United States, now want Silicon Valley companies to do more to tackle potential threats. For many policymakers, that includes opening up services like WhatsApp and Telegram, a rival messaging tool, to national intelligence agencies when they are investigating terrorist activities. “We do want them to recognise that they have a responsibility to engage with government, to engage with law enforcement agencies when there is a terrorist situation,” Rudd told the BBC on Sunday, referring to tech companies. “They cannot get away with saying we are in a different situation. They are not.”
Tech companies and digital rights advocates have said such efforts would infringe on human rights because providing authorities with access to such messaging services would require weakening their overall levels of encryption. That, they argue, would leave people who use those services vulnerable to outsiders.
The move by British lawmakers is the latest effort in Europe to police how internet giants operate online. This month, a German government minister, Heiko Maas, said that he would propose new legislation that could fine tech companies around US$50 million (RM221 million) if they failed to stop hate speech being spread on digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube.
Officials in Britain, however, are going a step further. And by demanding that intelligence agencies be allowed to read encrypted messages, Rudd is reiterating long-held plans to gain more control over digital services. Last year, the country passed legislation giving law enforcement greater powers to make telecommunications and technology companies hand over digital information relating to intelligence operations. The law also required tech companies to bypass encryption protocols, where possible, to aid investigations.
Tech companies say they cannot hand over such information because internet messages are sent through so-called end-to-end encryption. This technology scrambles messages to make them indecipherable to anyone but their intended recipient. It also makes messages unreadable when they pass through an app’s server, meaning companies do not have the ability to provide the information to law enforcement even if they wanted to. If such technology is weakened, campaigners say, governments and hackers could gain access to encrypted messages, reducing people’s ability to communicate privately online.