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Privacy Battle Rages Over Government Plans which ‘Could End’ Encrypted Messaging Apps like WhatsApp and Telegram

A global coalition is urging ministers and lords to protect end-to-end encryption in the Online Safety Bill

Government agencies will have the power to scan messaging apps for “trigger” keywords. Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

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Campaigners have expressed grave concerns over parts of the Online Safety Bill they say could effectively end encrypted messaging apps that protect users’ privacy. 

A global coalition of democracy and tech experts – including figures from Liberty, Big Brother Watch and Open Rights Group – have published an open letter to the Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary and all peers, urgently calling for amendments to the Government’s flagship Online Safety Bill. 

The legislation – which has been in the running for several years but is now reaching its final stages in Parliament – seeks to regulate “online harms” to protect children and stop crime. 

But a collective of privacy experts around the world believe that the legislation, as it stands, will seriously undermine end-to-end encryption – the principle that no one can intercept messages between two people on apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal. 

The move to allow security services and social media firms to scan messages for “dangerous” content “jeopardises” the right to privacy, they argue – by opening backdoors for governments around the world to try and get access to dissidents and journalists’ messages. 

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The threat to end-to-end encryption could “potentially facilitate unprecedented corporate and government surveillance,” the group, coordinated by FairVote UK, says. 

The letter hits out at the Government for establishing what the group terms a “false dichotomy” between privacy and safety – effectively treating all citizens as potential online threats. 

The coalition warns that this approach not only poses a risk for UK citizens but also sets a dangerous international precedent, which could potentially be exploited by authoritarian governments.

“We urge you to carefully consider amendments to the bill that protect encryption and ensure that privacy remains a fundamental right to be enjoyed by all citizens,” the letter states.

Echoing concerns raised last week by another joint statement supported by 87 organisations and experts, the coalition is encouraging an “open and nuanced” discussion regarding the bill, aimed at identifying effective ways of promoting online safety without undermining personal privacy rights.

Campaigners hope that their “united voice” will be heard in the House of Lords as the legislation reaches its report stage, potentially as soon as today.

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Kyle Taylor, founder of Fair Vote UK, said: “The right to privacy is a fundamental bedrock of a democratic society. Verbal government assurances that everything is fine with regard to preserving privacy do not satisfy the views of organisations and experts who have been working on these issues for years. More must be done. 

“Privacy is freedom, and freedom is democracy. If you threaten the first, the rest can fall like dominoes.”

In a letter last July, then Home Secretary Priti Patel wrote that “things like end-to-end encryption significantly reduce the ability for platforms to detect child sexual abuse” and that bill “sets a clear legal duty to prevent, identify and remove child sexual abuse content, irrespective of the technologies they use”.

“Nobody can sensibly deny that this is a moral imperative… If end-to-end encryption is implemented without the relevant safety mitigations in place, this will become much harder,” she said. “It will significantly reduce tech companies’ and law enforcement’s ability to detect child sexual abuse happening online. This is obviously unacceptable.”


The Letter

The Rt Hon Chloe Smith MP, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology

CC: Members of the House of Lords

Dear Secretary of State,

We write to you as a group of organisations, academics and experts from around the world committed to protecting the right to privacy. We urge you to remove powers in the Online Safety Bill that threaten to undermine end-to-end encryption. At present, the Bill poses a serious threat to privacy, a right which is crucial to ensuring that freedom of expression and freedom of association are also protected.

The Bill gives new powers to Ofcom to compel social media networks and chat services to use technology to scan our private messages. This would totally undermine end-to-end encryption and threaten unprecedented corporate and government surveillance. The government has used a false dichotomy between ‘privacy’ and ‘safety’ that treats citizens as the danger to be tackled online. Not only is this bad for people in the UK, it also sets a dangerous precedent for authoritarian governments around the world who will point to the UK to justify rights-restricting legislation of their own.

We urge you to carefully consider amendments to the Bill that protect encryption and ensure that privacy remains a fundamental right to be enjoyed by all citizens.

Sincerely:

  • Kyle Taylor, Founder & Director, Fair Vote UK
  • Sam Grant, Advocacy Director, Liberty
  • Silkie Carlo, Director, Big Brother Watch
  • Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group
  • Wendy Via and Heidi Beirich, co-founders, Global Project Against Hate and Extremism
  • Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and CEO, Glitch
  • Jesse Lehrich, Co-Founder, AccountableTech
  • Jamie Wareham, Journalist and Editor, QueerAF
  • Vicky Wyatt, Campaign Director, Ekō
  • Georgia Bullen, Executive Director, Superbloom (previously Simply Secure)
  • Griff Ferris, Senior Legal and Policy Officer, Fair Trials
  • Alice Stollmeyer, Founder & Executive Director, Defend Democracy
  • Xavier Brandao, Director and cofounder, #jesuislà
  • Liz Crosbie, Project Director, AllianceNow UK
  • Jacqueline Rowe, Policy Lead, Global Partners Digital

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