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London terror attack: Are WhatsApp, other apps offering terrorists a secret place for communication?

WhatsApp icon is seen on a iPhone. Photograph: (Getty)

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Mar 28, 2017, 11.47 AM (IST) Ankit Tuteja

Tech firms and social media players are coming under increasing pressure over extremists using their websites, applications and technology to communicate extremist content. This time it’s WhatsApp and its encryption technology that the British government is eyeing after the Westminster attack on Wednesday. This is because Khalid Masood, the 52-year-old Briton who killed four people in a rampage in Westminster before being shot dead, reportedly used WhatsApp moments before the assault.

Now the British government believes that its security services must have access to encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp, as it was found that the service was used by the man behind the parliament attack.

"You can't have a situation where you have terrorists talking to each other - where this terrorist sent a WhatsApp message - and it can't be accessed," said Amber Rudd home secretary of the United Kingdom.

"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,” she added.

While WhatsApp is working with British authorities investigating the Westminster attack, it is not specified whether it would change its policy on encrypted messaging.

But before we hear more from WhatsApp on the same, let’s understand what is end-to-end encryption and how it works.

End-to-end encryption

A lot of messaging apps such as Apple iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger, Line, Signal, Viber, and Telegram come with an encryption technology, but the usage differs from app to app. The idea behind-end-to-end encryption is to prevent snooping on digital conversations. In other words, end-to-end encryption is vital to cyber security.

End-to-end encryption (say, in case of WhatsApp) secures your messages, photos, videos, voice messages, documents, status updates and calls and prevents them from falling into wrong hands.

Facebook Messenger uses the same encryption technology as WhatsApp. While WhatsApp messages (in entirety) are encrypted by default, Facebook Messenger users must turn on the feature to get the extra additional security protection. Messenger users, however, cannot send videos or make payments in encrypted conversations.

Apple’s iMessage, on the other hand, is also end-to-end encrypted by default between iPhones. But this end-to-end encryption doesn’t work if the communication is happening between an iPhone and a non-iPhone device. Because in such a case, iMessage responds to unencrypted messages.

Another popular messaging app Telegram doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption for chats by default. Users, however, have a Secret Chats option to have one-on-one chats wherein messages are encrypted.

Authorities vs tech titans

It’s not the first time that a tech company has come under the radar of government authorities. US authorities last year fought a legal battle with tech giant Apple to get it to unlock a smartphone used by one of the shooters in a terror attack last year in San Bernadino, California. The FBI's own experts, however, ended up breaking into the device.

Social media giants are also coming under pressure over extremist content being posted on their sites. Germany this month proposed imposing fines on social networks such as Facebook if they fail to remove illegal hate speech from their sites.

Google, meanwhile, has faced a boycott by companies whose adverts appeared alongside extremist content on its internet platforms, particularly its video-sharing site YouTube.

(WION)

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