I must enter an immediate caveat: I am baffled by modern technology. I listen with enormous admiration to my friends, some of them even as old as I am, as they speak with terrifying confidence about the extraordinary things they can do with the internet and with things which they call “apps”. But, long ago, I accepted that all that sort of thing was beyond me. I muddle along reasonably happily, but I know there is an amazing new world out there which will for ever be closed to me.
Nevertheless, I have made a real effort to understand what it is that has made our Home Secretary incandescent with rage about one of those apps. Let me first try to set out the facts (I may have got them all wrong but I don’t think I have).
There is a piece of software known as What’s App. It enables its users to send messages over the internet to their pals which can’t be intercepted by anyone else, not by crooks, not by the state and not even by the company (I think it may be Facebook) which created the device. On the whole, it sounds like rather a good thing. In these days when most communications over the internet can be hacked by criminals it strikes me that we should be pleased there is now a way of sending messages which is safe.
Here I have to get technical. What’s App is secure because, I think this is right, it encrypts all messages when they are sent and only the recipients’ machines (things like portable telephones and computers) can decrypt them. Criminals can’t decrypt them. GCHQ can’t decrypt them. Facebook technicians themselves can’t decrypt them.
Bad people can, of course, use What’s App to send messages to each other. Rather in the way that it is possible to whisper (perhaps with hand held over mouth like those silly doubles tennis players to stop lip readers from seeing what is being said), criminals, even terrorists, can use What’s App to plot dastardly crimes without anyone else knowing what they are saying.
The final fact in this litany relates to the recent Westminster atrocity. The terrorist apparently sent a message, using What’s App, to someone moments before he embarked on his killing spree. Entirely understandably, the police would like to know to whom the message was sent and what it said. What’s App, however, is unable to provide that information, for reasons set out above.
Now, over to the Home Secretary. She is furious. She is telling us all that What’s App is refusing to reveal vital information to the police about an appalling act of terrorism. That is simply not true. What’s App can’t provide the information because it can’t decrypt the message sent by the terrorist. What this dishonest politician really wants is for the Facebook technicians to tweak What’s App so that it is no longer secure. She wants them to create something called a “back door” to the device and to hand the key to that door to the state. That won’t, of course, enable the police to see the message sent by the Westminster terrorist. But it will enable the state (and lots of criminals) to see future What’s App messages.
I assume that Ms Rudd’s decision to ignore the facts, and pretend that What’s App knows what was in the message and to whom it was sent but is refusing to reveal those facts, was made because she knows that most of us rather like the idea of having a secure system for sending messages. If she told the truth, if she said all she really wants is to make What’s App an insecure method for sending messages, so that the state (and masses of criminals) could read them all, she might not be terribly popular. Better, by far, to portray Facebook as an accomplice to murder.
Of course, I may have misunderstood all that technical stuff. But I don’t think I have. I hate to say it, but I am forced to the conclusion that Ms Rudd is not a very good person.