Privacy concerns could have Whatsapp off UK phones soon
Ministers have been told that the UK government risks sleepwalking into a conflict with WhatsApp that may result in the messaging software vanishing from the country.
UK Ministers have been told that the government risks sleepwalking into a conflict with WhatsApp that may result in the messaging software vanishing from the country, with options for a peaceful resolution quickly running out.
The internet safety bill, a massive piece of legislation that will affect practically every element of online life in the UK, is at the heart of the debate. The measure, which is currently being debated in the House of Lords, has taken more than four years to develop and has included eight secretaries of state and five prime ministers.
The law empowers Britain's Ofcom to impose obligations on social networks to utilize technology to combat terrorism or child sexual abuse content, with fines of up to 10% of worldwide revenue for non-compliance. To comply with the notice, businesses must utilize their "best endeavors" to build or source technology.
Impossible without breaching privacy
However, for messaging applications that utilize "end-to-end encryption" (E2EE) to safeguard their user data, it is technologically impossible to read user conversations without fundamentally breaching their commitments to consumers; companies claims it is a move they will not take.
“The bill provides no explicit protection for encryption,” according to a coalition of providers, including the market leaders 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.”
They claim that if forced to pick, they would choose to preserve the security of their non-UK users.
Read more: Apple takes a bite out of user privacy
“Ninety-eight percent of our users are outside the UK,” chief of Whatsapp 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% of users.”
Legislators have urged the administration to address the issues.
“These services, such as WhatsApp, will potentially leave the UK,” Claire Fox told the House of Lords last week. “This is not like threatening to storm off. It is not done in any kind of pique in that way. In putting enormous pressure on these platforms to scan communications, we must remember that they are global platforms.
“They have a system that works for billions of people all around the world. A relatively small market such as the UK is not something for which they would compromise their billions of users around the world.”
A Home Office spokesperson stated, “We support strong encryption, but this cannot come at 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," adding that the bill does not ban encryption nor will it require services to weaken them.
The government's approach, according to Richard Allan, the Liberal Democrat peer who served as Meta's director of strategy for a decade until 2019, was one of "intentional ambiguity."
“They are careful to say that they have no intention of banning end-to-end encryption … but at the same time refuse to confirm that they could not do so under the new powers in the bill. This creates a high-stakes game of chicken, where the government think companies will give them more if they hold the threat of drastic technical orders over them. The government’s hope is that companies will blink first in the game of chicken and give them what they want.”