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UK home secretary says she supports encryption… but also wants firms to scan your messages

Instant messaging apps

The UK’s home secretary, Priti Patel, has written an article for The Telegraph today outlining the need for the Online Safety Bill to protect children. What was striking, though, were her claims that the government supports the responsible use of encryption technologies but then went on to say that tech companies should be scanning messages for harmful content.

Under the Online Safety Bill, tech companies will be forced to develop or source technology to mitigate so-called harms on their platforms. The bill gives the regulator Ofcom powers to go after firms that refuse to comply; it can impose massive fines of up to £18 million or 10% of the company’s global annual turnover – whichever is higher.

Many of the messenger products that people use in the UK daily are protected with end-to-end encryption, including WhatsApp. Under the new law, Meta would likely have to remove support for encryption so that it can continually scan messages. Meta’s Messenger product doesn’t use encryption by default and has in-built mechanisms to stop people from sending links to piracy websites, for example. Something like this could be extended out to other content deemed harmful.

The privacy advocacy group, Open Rights Group, has been trying to warn people about the bill and its impact on end-to-end encryption for a while now and even has a Sign the Pledge campaign going on to drum up support against the bill. While their warning of government snooping could be construed as exaggeration, Patel’s piece in The Telegraph all but confirms that the Online Safety Bill will be the end of end-to-end encryption in the UK in messenger apps.

On July 12, the bill will pass through the report stage where MPs can discuss and make amendments to the bill. Neowin reported yesterday that the government was looking at an amendment to force online companies to tackle state-sponsored disinformation. If they refuse to comply, they could be fined or even banned.

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