Is there anything more Nineteen Eighty-Four-style-sinister than the ‘Smile, you’re on camera’ signs, which can be found liberally dotted around the UK? According to estimates from the British Security Industry Authority (BSIA), there are around five million CCTV cameras in Britain, which works out at about one camera per 14 people. There are more surveillance cameras in Britain than in China.
The arguments for such extreme levels of surveillance are always the same: the cameras act as a deterrent to criminals; they help catch criminals after a crime has been committed. In short, they make Britain a safer place for law-abiding citizens.
And security is once again the name of the game as home secretary Amber Rudd attacks online messaging service WhatsApp. It turns out Westminster terrorist Khalid Masood sent a WhatsApp message just minutes before launching his murderous attack. But due to WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption of messages, the content of that message cannot be accessed by the government’s security services. This has been labelled ‘completely unacceptable’ by Rudd. Speaking on BBC TV’s Andrew Marr Show, she accused WhatsApp of providing a ‘place for terrorists to hide’.
Rudd says that when it comes to exceptional situations like terrorism, security services must be able to access encrypted messages. Clearly, she does not fully understand encryption. WhatsApp encryption works by scrambling messages once they have been sent. Only the sender and recipient of the message have the key to unscramble it on their devices. This means that even WhatsApp cannot access the content. If WhatsApp, and other online communications companies, were to create some kind of backdoor that would allow security agencies access, this would make all of the data vulnerable to hackers and other cybercriminals. Furthermore, if companies include built-in loopholes to their encryption tools, then it negates the entire point of the service.
In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, it is understandable to want security. But there are much wider implications to increased security that need to be considered. People should have the right to privacy, and the freedom to communicate with others without worrying that the government is looking over their shoulder. Restricting this freedom for terrorists would mean restricting it for all of us. And privacy is an important civil liberty. When WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum launched the messenger’s encryption service, he explained his personal connection to the principle of privacy: ‘The desire to protect people’s private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and for me, it’s personal. I grew up in the USSR during Communist rule, and the fact that people couldn’t speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States.’