Amber Rudd has vowed to “call time” on internet firms who give terrorists “a place to hide” as it emerged security services are powerless to access Westminster attacker Adrian Ajao’s final WhatsApp message.
The Home Secretary said it was “completely unacceptable” that Whats App – which is owned by Facebook – was enabling terrorists to communicate “in secret”, knowing the police and security services will not be able to read their encrypted communications.
She has summoned WhatsApp, Facebook, Google and a host of other online firms to showdown talks at the Home Office on Thursday, where she says she will “call time” on extremists “using social media as their platform”.
Ajao, 52, sent a final message via WhatsApp – which enables users to send text messages and pictures over the internet – just three minutes before he began Wednesday’s slaughter.
But Scotland Yard and the security services cannot access what could be a vital clue in their investigation because WhatsApp uses so-called “end to end encryption” which the firm says prevents even its own technicians from reading people’s messages. Detectives cannot find out who Ajao was messaging, or what he said.
In a scathing attack on WhatsApp, as well as Google and social media platforms which have failed to take down extremist material, she said: “Where there are ongoing investigations with terrorists – these people have families, have children as well, they should be on our side.”
Ms Rudd confirmed that the Government was considering legislation to force online firms to take down extremist material, but said it was time for the companies to “recognise that they have a responsibility” to get their own house in order.
Other companies, including Google, have faced repeated criticism since the London attack for failing to block terrorist handbooks, including advice on how to use a car as a weapon and a guide on where to stab someone who is wearing a stab-proof vest.
Ajao’s final victim, Pc Keith Palmer, was stabbed to death by him, despite wearing a stab jacket. Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Ms Rudd said: “What these companies have to realise is that they are now publishing companies, they are not technology companies, they are platforms and we need to make sure that that stops. We will not resile from taking action if we need to.”
WhatsApp, which has a billion users worldwide, has said that protecting its users’ private communication is one of its “core beliefs”.
Company sources said that “with end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp does not have access to the content of messages. Only the sender and the recipient can read the messages on their devices”.
But the Home Secretary said: “We have to have a situation where we can have our security services get into the terrorists’ communications. There should be no place for terrorists to hide. We would do it all through the carefully thought-through legally covered arrangements but they cannot get away with saying ‘We are a different situation.’ They are not.
“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.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said the security services had “huge, huge powers of investigation already – there is a question of always balancing the right to know, the need to know, with the right to privacy.”
Asked if the balance was right at the moment, he said: “I think it probably is.”
WhatsApp was blocked three times last year in Brazil for failing to hand over information relating to criminal investigations.
Judges ordered telecoms providers to block the service. Rival messaging services such as Telegram are also encrypted, but their software has been written to enable law enforcement agencies to access messages where they can prove it is a necessary part of a criminal investigation.
Police in Germany knew Anis Amri was planning a suicide attack nine months before he drove a lorry into a packed Christmas market in Berlin last December, killing 12, because they had been able to access encrypted Telegram messages.
Ms Rudd said: “You can have a system whereby they can build it so we can have access to it when it is absolutely necessary. We can’t have a situation where terrorists can talk to each other.”
Asked if Google, Apple and other firms were now too big for the Government to take on, Ms Rudd said: “I would say think again.
“We want to do this, but we also want other countries to do this. I know it sounds like we’re stepping away from legislation, but we’re not.
“What I’m saying is the best people who understand the technology to stop it going up in the first place are them. They could have an industry-wide board set up to take care of this. I want to make sure that they do.”
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said he was “furious” about the failure of internet companies to block extremist material.
He told The Sunday Times: “I think it’s disgusting. They need to stop just making money out of prurient violent material.”
A spokesman for WhatsApp said: “We are horrified by the attack carried out in London earlier this week and are cooperating with law enforcement as they continue their investigations.”