Bad news for WhatsApp users - the app could be about to disappear in the UK thanks to a row between the app and the government.
The government's online safety bill will give Ofcom the power to impose requirements for social networks to use technology to tackle terrorism or child sexual abuse content.
But WhatsApp secures user data with “end-to-end encryption” (E2EE), making it technologically impossible to read user messages without breaking their promises to users, so the app is not happy.
“The bill provides no explicit protection for encryption,” said a coalition of providers, including WhatsApp and Signal, in an open letter last month, “and if implemented as written, could empower Ofcom to try to force the proactive scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services, nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users.”
If push came to shove, they say, they would choose to protect the security of their non-UK users. “Ninety-eight per cent of our users are outside the UK,” WhatsApp’s chief, Will Cathcart, told the Guardian in March. “They do not want us to lower the security of the product, and just as a straightforward matter, it would be an odd choice for us to choose to lower the security of the product in a way that would affect those 98 per cent of users.”
Meanwhile politicians are split on the issue with Claire Fox speaking out against this measure of the bill in the house of lords but others saying it was necessary.
There were record levels of online child sexual abuse, Richard Collard, of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), said, with the victims, mostly girls, targeted at an increasingly young age.
"The front line of this fight to keep our children safe is private messaging - and it would be inconceivable for regulators and law enforcement to suddenly go into retreat at the behest of some of the world's biggest companies," he said.
"Experts have demonstrated that it's possible to tackle child abuse material and grooming in end-to-end encrypted environments."
A Home Office spokesperson told the publication: “We support strong encryption, but this cannot come at the cost of public safety. Tech companies have a moral duty to ensure they are not blinding themselves and law enforcement to the unprecedented levels of child sexual abuse on their platforms.
“The online safety bill in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption.
“Where it is the only effective, proportionate and necessary action available, Ofcom will be able to direct platforms to use accredited technology, or make best endeavours to develop new technology, to accurately identify child sexual abuse content, so it can be taken down and the despicable predators brought to justice.”
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