Encrypted WhatsApp messages sent by the London terror attack suspect moments before the incident which killed four victims has renewed debate about police investigators accessing personal data and communications.
Following the attack, British home secretary Amber Rudd has urged technology companies to cooperate with law enforcement agencies and stop offering a “secret place for terrorists to communicate” using encrypted messages.
It is understood British-born assailant Khalid Masood sent an encrypted message via WhatsApp moments before killing four people last week by ploughing his car into pedestrians and fatally stabbing a policeman as he tried to gain entry to UK Parliament.
Ms Rudd appealed for help from the tech owners themselves, of encrypted messaging apps such as Facebook’s WhatsApp, backing away from seeking to introduce new legislation.
When asked for her view on companies which offer end-to-end encrypted messages, Ms Rudd said:
“It is completely unacceptable, there should be no place for terrorists to hide,” she said.
“We need to make sure 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.”
British Liberal Democrat politician and former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick said the security services could view “the content of suspected terrorists’ encrypted messages”.
“The real question is, could lives have been saved in London last week if end-to-end encryption had been banned? All the evidence suggests that the answer is no.”
Talks in the United States between officials and technology companies have also intensified since a mass shooting in San Bernardino in 2015, so as to allow state security a “way around encryption”.
The Labor Party has similarly called on the Turnbull government to issue advice to Australian ministers and government employees on the use of communication apps and cyber security.
Shadow Minister for Cyber Security Gai Brodtmann said in a statement on Sunday that politicians and senators need “clear guidelines from government security agencies on cyber security, including the appropriate use of communication apps such as WhatsApp”.
The call came days after AAP lodged a freedom of information request seeking copies of reports or correspondence from the government’s top cyber-security adviser, Alastair MacGibbon, about apps which he regards as legitimate and safe to be used.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) replied: “No relevant documents were found in the department.”
Ms Brodtmann said: “Freedom of Information requests reveal that, despite concerns about communication apps, the Turnbull Government still hasn’t sought advice from the Prime Minister’s Cyber Security Special Adviser on their appropriate use”.
Two of the three government agencies covered in a cyber security audit had insufficient protection against attacks, according to a National Audit Office report tabled in Parliament last week, she added.
The DPMC previously told AAP the Australian Signals Directorate was responsible for “promulgating the standards which govern the security of government ICT systems through the Information Security Manual”.
The manual says all agencies “must assess and document the risks of using mobile devices” and should not use “paging, multimedia message service, SMS or instant messaging” to communicate sensitive or classified information.
A spate of fake Facebook accounts set up by online scammers for federal MPs prompted the government to call in the social media giant while politicians were briefed internally on cyber security, News Corp reported on Sunday.
Ms Brodtmann said she welcomed the news but that the government needs to take its own advice on cyber security.
“The Prime Minister has said all Australians need to take cyber security seriously, but is ignoring his own advice. And so are his government agencies,” she said.
– with AAP