Britain said WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption communication services allowed pedophiles and organized crime groups to operate beyond the reach of the law and called on the messaging service to move faster to help governments catch offenders.
After four militant attacks in Britain that killed 36 people this year, senior ministers have repeatedly demanded that internet companies do more to suppress extremist content and allow access to encrypted communications.
Such a sharp public reprimand for WhatsApp, which did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment, indicates frustration within the government.
“We also know that end-to-end encryption services like WhatsApp, are being used by pedophiles,” Home Secretary Amber Rudd told party activists in the northern English city of Manchester.
“I do not accept it is right that companies should allow them and other criminals to operate beyond the reach of law enforcement,” Rudd said. “We must require the industry to move faster and more aggressively. They have the resources and there must be greater urgency.”
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook (fb), and similar rival chat services let users communicate with pictures, video and text, using “end-to-end” encryption that can be read only with a key held on the user’s device. Without access to the devices, security services cannot read the messages.
The industry says it wants to help governments remove extremist or criminal material but also has to balance the demands of state security with the freedoms enshrined in democratic societies.
Britain’s MI5 security service has said it needs access to encrypted communications to foil attacks. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has pushed for full access to encrypted communications and devices but Congress has so far refused.
Security Minister Ben Wallace, who oversees British counter-terrorism and communications data legislation, said he was disturbed to see that end-to-end encryption services prevented security services from tracking criminal messaging.
“We see on a daily basis that this end-to-end encryption protects peadophiles, it protects organized crime too, but it is very disturbing in my job when I know that we know two peadophiles are talking and we think they are doing something about snatching a child but we don’t know and we can’t get into these communications,” Wallace said.
“There are other ways I can’t talk about which we think they can help us more without necessarily entering into end-to-end encryption. So we think they can do more.”