Theresa May singles out encrypted messaging apps in Davos address

26 Jan 2018

Theresa May speaking at Davos. Image: Number 10/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Theresa May criticised encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram.

Theresa May has long been a critic of large tech firms but her address from Davos on Thursday (25 January) zoned in on smaller companies and encrypted messaging as a potential tool for terrorists and extremists.

As The Guardian reported, the UK prime minister called for terrorists to be denied “safe spaces” to communicate in her position as home secretary in 2015.

In 2017, May’s office echoed current home secretary Amber Rudd’s call for police and intelligence services to be granted access to encrypted content on services such as Telegram and WhatsApp.

Targeting Telegram

May discussed Telegram in particular at Davos, saying: “Just as these big companies need to step up, so we also need cross-industry responses because smaller platforms can quickly become home to criminals and terrorists.

“We have seen that happen with Telegram. And we need to see more cooperation from smaller platforms like this.”

She also added that she would apply social pressure to companies in order to get them to act, saying, “No one wants to be known as the ‘terrorists’ platform’ or the first-choice app for paedophiles.”

Big tech responds

The prime minister urged firms like Facebook and Google to examine the “social impact” of companies they are considering investing in.

A spokesperson for Facebook told CNET that the company works hard to remove content relating to terrorist groups, as did a Twitter representative.

Encryption discussion heating up

Encryption has become a controversial element of the technology conversation of late.

While encryption can keep data secret and secure, there are organisations who may use it in order to evade eavesdropping attempts from law enforcement, intelligence agencies and other bodies.

Amber Rudd’s call to allow government agents access to encrypted messages was met with derision from technologists, many of whom pointed out the lack of a mathematical method to introduce a backdoor into a system to allow access to one particular group (the police, for example) that could not later be discovered by a separate group.

The problem with backdoors

If such a mechanism were to exist, it would be vulnerable to criminals and hackers as well as government groups and would raise questions about the potential for far-reaching state surveillance.

In the summer of 2017, Timothy Revell at The New Scientist explained the impracticalities inherent in the potential dismantling of encryption.

“The arguments against banning encryption are well rehearsed but worth repeating. Encryption is not just a tool used by terrorists,” wrote Revell.

“Anyone who uses the internet uses encryption. Messaging apps, online banking, e-commerce, government websites, or your local hospital all use encryption.

“A ban on encryption would make it impossible to do anything online that relies on keeping things private, like sending your credit card details or messaging your doctor.”

As the public becomes more interested in encryption for day-to-day communications, it remains to be seen how the battle between tech companies and state entities will pan out in the coming months and years.

Theresa May speaking at Davos 2018. Image: Number 10/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects