Twitter’s Head of Site Integrity, Yoel Roth, said his company is seeing “governments become more aggressive in how they try to use legal tactics to unmask the people using our service” and as a way to “silence people”. (Tech Outlook). It’s a view echoed by WhatsApp CEO, Will Cathcart, who this week said his company might cease operating in the UK if the Online Safety Bill reaches the statute book in its current form. (BBC).
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Mr Cathcart was talking specifically about a new, government-backed amendment to the bill that will require tech firms like WhatsApp to make their “best endeavours” to deploy new technology to identify and remove child sexual abuse and exploitation content if existing technology isn’t suitable for that purpose on their respective platforms. (Sky News).
The bill did already contain a proposal to give Ofcom – the regulator tasked with overseeing implementation of the bill – the power to require deployment of existing, “accredited technology” for that purpose. Under the new amendment, however, Ofcom will be able to demand that tech firms deploy or develop new technology to help find abuse material and stop its spread. (Guardian).
Mr Cathcart said that “what’s being proposed is that… we read everyone’s messages”, a choice of words which suggests WhatsApp is now worried Ofcom may well ask online service providers to pursue ‘client-side scanning’, a controversial surveillance method which allows providers of end-to-end encrypted communication services to automatically scan private chats, messages, texts, images, videos and speech sent from that ‘client’s’ phone for suspicious content which could then automatically be reported to the police. (BBC News).
Critics say the technology could be subject to “scope creep” once it’s installed on phones and computers, so it isn’t just used to search for illegal content. (Computer Weekly). That’s obviously a worrying possibility, not least because freedom of expression and privacy are mutually reinforcing rights.
For Mr Cathcart, the fundamental problem with client-side scanning is that it undermines WhatsApp’s unique selling point, namely, secure, end-to-end encryption. As he told the BBC’s Tech Tent podcast, “WhatsApp’s a global product. People use it… to talk across countries all the time. And so if we had to lower security for the world to accommodate a [regulatory] requirement in one country, as a business decision, that would be very foolish for us.” Would WhatsApp disable services in the UK if the newly amended Online Safety Bill passed into law?, asked the interviewer. “To date, the way we’ve worked is we’ve offered a global service and some countries choose to block it,” he replied. “I hope that never happens in a liberal democracy.”
The case for the Government’s amendment is of course that it will protect children. According to the National Crime Agency, there are between 550,000 and 850,000 people in the UK who pose a sexual risk to children, and it’s not difficult to understand why secure, end-to-end encryption might prove useful to those wishing to circulate depraved images online. That’s why Home Secretary Priti Patel has argued that “things like end-to-end encryption significantly reduce the ability for platforms to detect child sexual abuse”. (Telegraph).
But is the amendment a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Back in 2021, Apple abandoned attempts to introduce its own client-side scanning software after 14 top computer scientists, including encryption pioneers Ron Rivest and Whit Diffie, found its plans were unworkable, open to abuse, and threatened internet security. (Tech Times). Their paper Bugs in our pockets: the risks of client-side scanning, identified 15 ways that states, malicious actors, and even targeted child abusers, could exploit the technology to cause harm to others. (Computer Weekly). Even the UK’s own Information Commissioner’s Office has said that encrypting communications actually strengthens online safety for children by reducing their exposure to threats such as blackmail. (Guardian).
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