UK Government Changes Encrypted Message Scanning Plans

The UK has changed powers that may be used to force tech companies to scan encrypted messages to search for sensitive images.

Firms like WhatsApp and Apple oppose these changes because of privacy concerns.

On Wednesday some amendments were passed by the Lords, now, the government is expecting a report to be written up before the powers are used by the regulator.

However, many believe these changes fail to protect privacy.

The amendment was passed after concerns were raised by messaging apps, tech experts and other companies.

These changes to the Online Safety Bill say a “skilled person” will have to write a report for the telecommunications regulator Ofcom before they use the new powers to scan messages.

This report could cover the impact scanning will have on the freedom of expression or privacy.
It could also cover any alternatives to scanning that could be used instead.

The regulator now needs to consider the impact the use of technology could have on journalism after another amendment was passed.

The bill will allow Ofcom to force tech firms to use “accredited technology” to scan messages for sensitive images.

At the moment, it is quite far in the journey through parliament.

Police, children’s charities and Ministers have come out and said that these powers are needed to battle the “record levels” of sensitive images and other issues that affect children online.

This bill would help prevent the perpetrators from continuing to use these platforms for their crimes.
End-to-end encryption (E2EE) means that messages can only be seen by the sender and recipient.

This bill would mean that the messages would have to be scanned before they were encrypted, this is called client-side scanning.

Critics say that this undermines the privacy and security of encryption on messages.

Meredith Whittaker, the president of Signal the encrypted messaging app, has told the BBC that the powers would mean tech companies would have to “run government-mandated scanning services on their devices”.

Lord Parkinson, the government minister, said he is aware of “the concerns which have been aired about how these powers work with encrypted services”.

However, strong safeguards have been made to protect privacy.

Ofcom has to take the report into account when deciding on if it is necessary to force a tech firm to scan messages and then share their findings.

Campaigners who have named the powers a “spy clause” say at the very least, a judge should have to authorise the scanning of messages.

Index on Censorship, an organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression, said “This is not the legal oversight that these important new powers require, and give short shrift to users’ rights.”

“Judicial oversight is a bare minimum for a government-appointed body to be able to break encryption and access private messages” they continued.

Alongside the Index on Censorship, the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for digital rights, has also spoken out about the changes.

Saying “Given that this ‘skilled person’ could be a political appointee, and they would be overseeing decisions about free speech and privacy rights, this would not be effective oversight”.

Campaigners have also noted that these reports were not binding and that there is a lack of legal authority.

Another amendment, which is supported by Labour and Lib Dem spokesmen, does propose oversight by judges. ( Amendment 256 to Online Safety Bill to Online Safety Bill – Parliamentary Bills – UK Parliament )

However, Lord Stevenson of Labour did not move the amendment to a vote.

He did urge it to be discussed further at a later stage.

Lord Moylan of the Conservative party proposed an amendment that would fully exempt encrypted messaging services from scanning.

He said that the government’s plans “opened a hole” in encryption and that the powers were a “major assault on privacy”.

Lord Moylan did not, however, move the bill to a vote as he thought that the House would vote against it.

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