WhatsApp has come under fire again today. As of this afternoon, unconfirmed screen-shots indicated that the suspected Stockholm terrorist Rakhmat Akilov was using the application to communicate with an IS supporter, boasting to the latter “I ran over ten people” shortly after the attack last week.
Among other messages, Akilov – communicating with an expected IS sympathiser who was using the pseudonym Abu Fatyma – also sent messages asking “how do you make a bomb” and saying “tomorrow I want to find a great car and run into a crowd.” Later, Akilov tells Fatyma “I’ve been running over ten people in the centre of Stockholm, now I have to try and get out of here!”
In recent weeks, WhatsApp has been at the forefront of the news. Following the Westminster terror attack last month, home secretary Amber Rudd called for WhatsApp to be forced to reveal communications sent from terrorist Kahlid Masood’s phone. (Masood used the messaging service before his heinous attack.) Rudd stated that current privacy policies are “completely unacceptable”, before continuing: “there should be no place for terrorists to hide. We need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp – and there are plenty of others like that – don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other… We need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
It’s easy to map Rudd’s train of thought: terrorists communicate on WhatsApp, so if the security services can observe said terrorists’ conversations, they can react and hopefully prevent further attacks. Yet the simplicity of this train of thought reveals how easy it would be to undermine any governmental policy that was implemented as a result. The ability to steam open letters did not stop people from writing them. Police tapping phones did not stop people from talking on them. So why would giving the government access to WhatsApp terminate terrorist activity? Simply put, it wouldn’t.
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Who remembers Section 44 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000? The ludicrous ruling allowed forces to stop and search anyone at any time without any valid reason and without any police suspicion. What happened? A lot of drink-drivers got caught out because the law was manipulated in order that officers could stop vehicles and breathalyse drivers without any reason (such as dangerous driving). It goes without saying that drink-driving is perilous and stupid, but this manipulation of the law goes to show how expanding state powers does not always effectively serve intended purposes. Incidentally, under Section 44, thousands of people were stopped and searched in Greater London and not one was subsequently convicted of an offence relating to terrorism. The Act was later amended under the Security Act of 2015.
Accessing people’s private conversations will not stop individuals with demented motives acting in unhinged ways. What it will do is suffocate the everyday citizen. And suffocating everyday citizens means that the terrorists are winning. If, as Prime Minister Theresa May pledged last month, “Londoners – and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great City – will get up and go about their day as normal,” then it is absolutely essential that our conversations are not watched by the government.