The debate over the use of encryption in messaging apps continues to rage on, with Signal threatening to withdraw its services from the UK if the government’s Online Safety Bill undermines its ability to maintain end-to-end encryption. The bill, currently going through Parliament, has raised concerns among companies whose business is built on providing secure, private communication, with critics suggesting that Ofcom could force firms to scan messages on encrypted apps for child sexual abuse material or terrorism content.
Signal’s Firm Refusal to Compromise on Privacy
Signal’s President, Meredith Whittaker, told the BBC that the company would “absolutely, 100% walk” if it was forced to weaken the privacy of its messaging system. Whittaker argued that encryption was either protecting everyone or broken for everyone and said it was “magical thinking” to believe that privacy could be preserved “only for the good guys.” She also dismissed the notion that encryption was preventing efforts to combat online child abuse as “a siren song of the software salesman.”
The UK-based secure communications company Element also expressed concerns about the impact of the proposed legislation, with CEO Matthew Hodgson warning that the threat of mandated scanning alone would cost him clients. Hodgson argued that customers would assume that any secure communication product that came out of the UK would necessarily have to have backdoors in order to allow for illegal content to be scanned, potentially undermining security guarantees given to customers at the Ministry of Defence and other sensitive areas of government.
The UK Government’s “Public Safety Concerns”
The government has denied that its proposal amounts to a ban on end-to-end encryption and argued that technological changes should not be implemented in a way that diminishes public safety, especially the safety of children online. However, privacy advocates have argued that client-side scanning, whereby messages are scanned for child abuse images before being encrypted, effectively undermines the point of encryption and could turn everyone’s phone into a “mass surveillance device that phones home to tech corporations and governments and private entities.”
The debate over encryption has been a longstanding one, with privacy advocates arguing that end-to-end encryption is a vital component of online security. At the same time, critics suggest that it hinders efforts to combat online criminal activity. As more and more of our lives are lived online, the need for secure, private communication is becoming increasingly important. The challenge for lawmakers is to balance the need for privacy with the need for public safety, particularly when it comes to protecting children from harm. As the debate continues, it remains to be seen whether Signal’s threat to withdraw its services will be a wake-up call for the UK government or if it will proceed with its plans to regulate encryption.
Source: Chris Vallance, BBC