The United Kingdom’s planned Online Safety Bill has caused concern among messaging apps, with WhatsApp and others warning of an “unprecedented threat” to UK citizens and their contacts worldwide. The legislation aims to protect people online, but some security experts fear that certain aspects of the bill could force apps to weaken the encryption that keeps messages private.
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The Open Letter
A group of messaging app executives have written an open letter to anyone who cares about safety and privacy on the internet. The letter warns that the proposed legislation poses an “unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security of every UK citizen and the people with whom they communicate around the world”. The letter was signed by the head of not only WhatsApp but also Signal, Viber, Element, OPTF/Session, Threema and Wire.
Private Messages Should Stay Private
Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, has emphasized that private messages should stay private. Cathcart has indicated that WhatsApp could be forced to turn off service for UK citizens if the rules required the weakening of security. Signal and other apps have stated that they would take the same stance.
End-to-end encryption is a technology used in apps such as WhatsApp to ensure that only the sender and recipient of a message can read it. It means that the message cannot be intercepted by third parties, locking out law enforcement and hackers, as well as the messaging platforms themselves.
Ofcom and Scanning Messages
Messaging apps have raised concerns that the new law could allow regulator Ofcom to force apps to scan messages to ensure that illegal content such as child abuse imagery is not being distributed on their platform. Security experts say that such scanning would require weakening security for everyone, as there is no way to break encryption on specific messages.
The Bill Could Break End-to-End Encryption
The open letter claims that the bill could break end-to-end encryption, opening the door to routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages of friends, family members, employees, executives, journalists, human rights activists, and politicians themselves. The letter calls for the government to rewrite the bill, stating that weakening encryption, compromising privacy, and introducing the mass surveillance of people’s private communications is not the way forward.
The UK government has indicated that it is not the intention of the bill to limit end-to-end encryption. Critics and messaging apps have argued that the legislation should be written more precisely to ensure that it cannot be used that way. The messaging apps and security experts are calling on the government to rewrite the bill to protect privacy and security for UK residents.