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WhatsApp must not hand over encryption keys to security agents

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A couple of years ago I visited Nigeria in the middle of an election. I was worried I might get kidnapped by Boko Haram. But upon arrival at Abuja, where a never-ending line of soldiers inspected my passport as if it were a bomb, I quickly realised that terrorists aren’t nearly as frightening as a paranoid government. The state has far greater capability than its tinpot opponents.
It always wants more, too. In the wake of Adrian Ajao’s attack on Westminster, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, demands that companies like WhatsApp allow the Government a way around their encryption so that security forces can access messages.

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Now, if we could make an exception for Ajao’s missives, I’d be all for letting the state have them – but the problem is that an exception to a rule inevitably undermines the rule itself. The rule here is that people ought to be able to communicate without anyone else knowing what’s being said. We call this privacy.
Of course, privacy has always been “negotiable”. Before spying went digital, the state could go through your letters. Then it learnt how to tap your phone. Some countries passed laws to prevent abuse by security services; others listened in on the lives of others without limit. When the internet came along, however, the power balance briefly shifted.
The Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak clung on to power until 2011 with the help of prisons, corruption and control of newspapers and TV. It was too arthritic, however, to keep up with the kids making revolution online. The pro-democracy protests in Tahrir Square, coordinated through social media, brought down Mubarak and came to symbolise the Arab Spring. One activist, Fawaz Rashed, explained: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”
But it was a double-edged sword. The Egyptian authorities started to monitor social media to see what its critics were up to. The state, especially when faced with the threat of losing its power, can adapt very quickly.
In 2013, it was revealed that the National Security Agency in the US had been collecting bulk data on people’s online activity. Here was an example of a government agency in a democratic country moving so fast in concert with technological change that it had gone beyond the reach of scrutiny and constraint.
Authoritarians have been more brazen. Russia is accused of hacking the Democratic Party and meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The regime certainly uses fake accounts to drum up political intrigue online, and has been caught trying to collect the personal data of its opponents via social media. Imagine if Russia had the capacity to decrypt messages related to banking or security. Give the British government access to WhatsApp and it’s only a matter of time before Moscow engineers a way in there, too.
So the internet, which was supposed to liberate us, has created new tools of surveillance and oppression. In May 2016, eight Iranian women were arrested when the state spotted them in Instagram photos without their headscarves on.
Nevertheless, some messaging apps still offer a source of encrypted resistance, a way of building a private sphere the state can’t reach.
Dictatorships hate them. Last year, around 450 Iranians were picked up for using messaging services, including WhatsApp – and that underscores a critical point about privacy. Yes, encryption can be used by theocrats to plot terrorism. But it can also be used by liberals to resist theocracy. For every Adrian Ajao messaging hate, there might be a gay man messaging his lover or a daughter defying a regime by swapping scarfless photos.
Britain is no tyranny, you might say; Britain only wants to catch the bad guys. True, but the Government’s case is so full of holes that it almost invites us to see another, darker motive.
Being able to decode Ajao’s messages wouldn’t have prevented his crime because he wasn’t a subject of interest to the security services before the attack. WhatsApp cannot share his messages because they are encrypted from user to user, and the company is not supposed to be able to read them (that’s the damn point). It’s theorised that the only way spooks could crack the code is through creating a “backdoor” into WhatsApp’s software. But this would compromise the privacy of all users. The Government would not be given a key to one door but a skeleton key that could open any door it likes. WhatsApp must say no.
Tim, don’t you trust Amber Rudd? You can assure Ms Rudd that I do. But one can trust a particular government without trusting the wider state. There is a difference. Besides, in a constitutional democracy, rights are not supposed to be safeguarded by trust in individual politicians, but by laws.
I have been to countries where that is not the case, where privacy is regarded as a threat to order. And when a state decides that privacy is its enemy, it has armies, policemen, lawyers and spies to help destroy it. We should always resist. Always assert your precious right to be left alone.

FOLLOW Tim Stanley on Twitter @timothy_stanley
©  The Telegraph

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