The Daily Telegraph

Anti-social media


Adrian Ajao, the man who killed four people in Westminste­r last week, sent a message on the WhatsApp service shortly before he carried out his attack. The police and security services investigat­ing the atrocity would clearly like to know who he contacted, but cannot because the social media platform is encrypted. Indeed, one of WhatsApp’s boasts is that not even state agencies are as heavily protected and, moreover, the organisati­on cannot read people’s messages.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, said yesterday that this state of affairs was unacceptab­le and stepped up the war of words that is under way between government­s around the world and the internet media companies, including Google and Facebook. They are under growing pressure to accept their responsibi­lities as purveyors of violent imagery and also as a means of contact between criminals and terrorists.

There is clearly a balance to be struck here. Those who assert that the state should always have access to anything they want and nothing should be hidden behind encrypted walls need to explain how that approach is consistent with the freedoms they wish to preserve. On the other hand, when a serious crime has been committed it is unconscion­able for those who could help to solve it or expose the motives of the perpetrato­r to decline to assist the authoritie­s.

There was a similar stand-off in America last year when Apple refused a court-backed request from the FBI to unlock the phone of a mass killer. Ms Rudd is right to say that these companies “should be on our side”. WhatsApp is proud of the personal security its system offers, but it must accept that this can be misused, and provide a way of overriding it in exceptiona­l circumstan­ces.

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