Threat to break encryption leads UK to lock horns with WhatsApp


Challenging new plans to police Britain’s Internet have left politicians standing off with WhatsApp and other popular encrypted messaging services. Descaling that row would be easier said than done.

The Online Safety Bill, the U.K.’s landmark effort to regulate social media giants, allows regulator Ofcom to require tech firms to identify child sexual abuse content in private messages.

The proposals have caused Will Cathcart, the head of Meta owns the messaging app and offers an encrypted service widely used in Westminster’s corridors of power, to claim it would instead be blocked in the U.K. than compromise privacy.

“At the heart, Our main focus is providing a private messaging service that caters to billions of users worldwide,” Cathcart told Politico in March when he visited London to lobby ministers. The topic at hand is the upcoming bill. It has been stated that a liberal democracy like the U.K. is saying, “Oh,” it’s OK to scan everyone’s communications for illegal content,’ which encourages countries worldwide. According to him, there are varying interpretations of what constitutes unlawful content. Still, ultimately they all suggest the same thing.

WhatsApp’s smaller rival, Signal, It was also stated that the company might discontinue its services in the U.K. if the bill is passed required scanning messages – echoing tech industry claims from more than a decade ago that they could not build backdoors into encrypted digital services, even for children online. to protect, because doing so leaves the product open to vulnerability from bad actors, including foreign governments.

“We cannot simply let thousands of paedophiles get away with it. It would not be responsible or proportionate for a government,” Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan told POLITICO in February.

Ministers are keen to reduce. According to two former ministers who spoke with POLITICO, adjusting the temperature could be a problematic task condition of anonymity, given the potential for pushback from M.P.s, the complexity of the technology and the emotional nature of the issue.

It is easier said than done.

It’s challenging to compromise in this situation, which mirrors debates in the E.U. and Australia over the responsibility of tech platforms for harmful content on encrypted services.

Controversy over whether the bill’s requirements can be met while protecting privacy centres around “client-side scanning.”

Leaders of Britain’s National Cyber Security Center and security agency GCHQ said last July that they believed such technology could protect children and privacy simultaneously, a finding other experts disputed.

A raft of cryptographers criticized the tactic in a 2021 report called Bugs in Our Pockets, which prompted tech giant Apple to abandon plans to introduce client-side scanning into its services. In Australia, the country’s e-safety commissioner recently released a report that found that Microsoft and Apple have few mechanisms to track child sexual abuse content through encrypted services.

According to the Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, companies ignore crimes on their platforms and fail to protect their systems and storage from abuse adequately. “It’s like leaving a house open to an intruder. Once that bad actor is inside, good luck getting them out.”

Hacking risk

Cybersecurity experts agree that the U.K. bill’s demands are inconsistent with encryption’s desire to protect. They claim privacy isn’t a latent problem — services either have it or don’t. They warn that policymakers should be wary of undermining such protections in ways that would potentially open people’s online experiences to abuse or hacking.

End-to-end encryption means no door, or to use a postal analogy, no sorting office is involved. State inquiries. Despite its proponents’ claims, client-side scanning consists of some success, sorting, and scanning capability. So there is no way to restrict it to good use by legitimate, trusted authorities and liberals. Democracy,” said Ciaran Martin, the former chief executive of the government’s National Cyber Security Center.

Ministers stress they support strong encryption and privacy but say it cannot come at the expense of public safety.

Technology companies should research technologies to detect child sexual abuse before encrypting messages, Donnellan said. But the government also appears to be looking for ways to cool the row, and Donnellan insists the measure will be “a last resort”.

The element in the bill serves as a safeguard that can be put into action if necessary. It will never be required as there may be other solutions,” he said.

A Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT) representative revealed that they are seeking a solution and are “engaging in discussions with anyone interested in addressing this matter.” However, they cannot speak on the record due to lack of authorization.

According to Politico, Melanie Dawes, the CEO of Ofcom, said they must consider certain things. Attempt to break encryption in the name of security would have to follow strict rules, and such requests would only be made in extreme circumstances.

“There is a high bar for Ofcom to be able to use a technology to protect security,” he said.

Controversy of the lords

On Thursday, members of the unelected House of Lords, the reformed chamber of the U.K. Parliament, shared their opinions on the matter.

Richard Allan, a peer from the Liberal Democratic Party and Facebook’s former chief lobbyist in Europe until 2019, has voiced his concerns about the impact of the bill on tech firms. He believes that if encryption is undermined, tech companies will not be able to offer their products in the U.K. He also warned that this move could make the country vulnerable to hostile states. Allan accused the government of playing a dangerous game by challenging tech firms.

But Biban Kidron, a crossbench peer who leads much of the Lord’s work on child protection, said while he was somewhat sympathetic to Allan’s arguments, big tech companies need to do more to protect users’ privacy.

According to Wilf Stevenson, who is heading Labour’s response to the bill in the Lords, he is still determining if the government’s plans are suitable for the present time, let alone the future. He also mentioned that the bill would give Ofcom the responsibility of being both a regulator and an inspector of private messages, which he believes needs to be revised.

But Stephen Parkinson, guiding the bill through the Lords for the government, favoured the legislation. A strong privacy protection is part of the bill, he said, echoing Donnellan’s comment that examining messages should be limited to suspected terrorism and child exploitation.

Convinced the ministers

Messaging services, including Signal and WhatsApp, hope for a ministerial ascension – but few saw one coming.

According to two former ministers who worked on the legislation, it is unlikely that many M.P.s, who will have the final say on the bill, will step up to their rescue.

“People are afraid that if they go in and fight it, even for a very genuine reason, it can very easily be portrayed as trying to stop them from protecting the children,” said a former cabinet minister, a party loyalist who previously served The draft of the bill, Dr.

A second former minister said M.P.s “didn’t get too involved with it on an efficient level” because it was “tough”.

“Tech companies have made significant efforts to frame the issue in the false binary that any law that affects private messaging will undermine end-to-end encryption and mean that encryption won’t work or will be broken. During a debate in June, opposition Labor frontbencher Alex Davies-Jones declared that the argument being presented was entirely false.

According to a former cabinet minister, the recent leak of M.P.s’ WhatsApp messages has damaged the belief that the platform is private and secure.

“If you share something with people on WhatsApp that’s inappropriate; there’s a good chance it’ll end up in the public domain anyway. “Encryption doesn’t stop it because somebody screenshots it, copies it, and sends it,” they lament.

David Davis, a former Brexit secretary and civil liberties campaigner, supports WhatsApp.

“There’s a whole series of weaknesses across the board that the government hasn’t taken on board,” he told POLITICO.

And on WhatsApp and Signal’s threat to leave the UK, Davies thinks a point can be made.

“Well, I hope they will. The truth is that their model relies on total secrecy,” he said.

About the author

Marta Lopez

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