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Messaging Apps Come Under Scrutiny in Wake of Attacks

Encryption capabilities may be threatened

June 6, 2017 | Mobile

Social media platforms found themselves under a magnifying glass in the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London, with Prime Minister Theresa May calling for greater government action to “regulate cyberspace” to curb terrorists’ use of online tools to promote their agendas and plan their attacks.

Facebook and others have increased efforts to crack down on extremist material on their sites in recent months. But the platforms that may face even heavier pressures are messaging apps that offer encrypted messaging capabilities. WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram Messenger are among the best-known secure apps, but even Facebook Messenger offers encryption via its “Secret Conversations.” (WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are units of Facebook.)

Amber Rudd, the UK’s home secretary, was explicit in a TV interview on Sunday, saying: “We want [online platforms] to focus on two things: taking down material that radicalizes people online and stopping people exploiting end-to-end encryption.”

Twitter, Facebook, Google and others spoke up after Saturday’s attack, expressing support of limiting the “voice” of terrorism on their platforms. For messaging apps, changes that weaken privacy protection could have a more significant impact.

eMarketer estimates that 45.8% of the overall UK population use messaging apps. That’s roughly similar to the uptake level in the US, where 43.0% of the population use messaging apps.

According to one measure, WhatsApp is the most widely used messaging app in the UK. A December 2016 survey by Kenshoo found that 50% of internet users in the UK use WhatsApp, slightly more than the 48% who said they use Messenger.

Messaging Apps Used by Internet Users in France and the UK, Dec 2016 (% of respondents)

Telegram, a messaging app considered even more robust when it comes to privacy than WhatsApp, is much less known in the UK. An August 2016 survey by MetrixLab found that only 6% of smartphone owners in the UK were familiar with Telegram.

Telegram has already faced criticism from lawmakers. In a Financial Times report, Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol, was quoted as saying about Telegram: “There are some that simply won’t co-operate with us. One in particular causing major problems for us is Telegram.”

In a March 27 blog post entitled “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” Telegram’s Markus Ra discussed his company’s thoughts on the terrorism issue.

“If you don’t look too closely, it may indeed seem tempting to simply ban end-to-end encryption to stop terrorists from exchanging coded messages,” he wrote. “The sad truth is that this will not work. Terrorists are prepared to face great discomfort to ensure that their communications are secure and their task is successful, including the ultimate discomfort of death. So if you ban or backdoor existing messaging apps, they will immediately switch to one of the following tactics: make their own apps; use coded language; or use other methods of communication.”

—Cliff Annicelli

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