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Amber Rudd says "real people" don't need end-to-end encryption

(Image credit: Image Credit: Yuri Samoilov / Flickr)

The UK Home Secretary has said that only terrorists benefit from the levels of encryption included in popular online messaging tools such as WhatsApp.

Speaking shortly before she flew out to the US to meet with technology giants including Google, Amber Rudd has suggested that "real people" do not need the amount of security protection offered by most modern services.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph (opens in new tab), Ms Rudd wrote, "Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family? Companies are constantly making trade-offs between security and "usability", and it is here where our experts believe opportunities may lie."

The Home Secretary also used her article to once again attack online platforms for allowing terrorists a way to "inspire and plan their acts of violence", referring to atrocities such as the attacks in Manchester and London earlier this year, and urged them to work closer with authorities to combat extremism.

"To be very clear - the Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption. But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances - even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge - is right now severely limiting our agencies' ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice," she wrote.

Ms Rudd says she will be meeting representatives from WhatsApp, YouTube and Alphabet in her trip to California, although seeing as the latter two are parts of the same company, it remains to be seen how busy her diary will actually be.

But her statements once again underline the lack of understanding that both her and the government appear to have when it comes to modern technology, and how deeply it is ingrained in the ordinary lives of most people.

End-to-end encryption, where messages and the data they contain are encoded so that they may not be read by anyone - even the app that sends it and the company that runs the app - has become a common feature of services such as WhatsApp, where it is a default option, and Facebook Messenger, where it is offered as an optional offering.

However the service has fallen foul of security services in the past for refusing to hand over details of conversations carried out by persons of interest.

Ms Rudd will also be attending the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism event during her trip to California, where she is expected to tell attendees and representatives from leading sites that, “Terrorists and extremists have sought to misuse your platforms to spread their hateful messages.

“The responsibility for tackling this threat at every level lies with both governments and with industry. We have a shared interest: we want to protect our citizens and keep the free and open internet we all love.”

It is a noble vision, but the government needs to show it understands exactly why consumers value the privacy offered by end-to-end encryption, especially with cybercrime levels reaching an all-time high.

Hopefully hearing from actual experts and meeting with companies with expertise in this area will help Ms Rudd to amend her thinking, and create a more accurate and harmonious accord between government and technology.

Mike Moore is Deputy Editor at TechRadar Pro, and has worked as a B2B and B2C tech journalist for nearly a decade, including at one of the UK's leading national newspapers and ITProPortal.