Americans who rely on WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, and other encrypted messaging services for private conversations may soon have this option taken away from us – by the British House of Lords.
The UK Parliament is close to passing the Online Safety Bill, which will give the UK government the power to scan every message online. The stated purpose is to catch child abusers and terrorists. A blog posted by Element, the UK’s popular encrypted app, says the bill will be “the online equivalent of installing a CCTV camera into everyone’s bedroom, hooked up to an artificial intelligence classifier which sends footage back to the authorities whenever it thinks it sees something illegal happening.”
The Element blog says that Apple (which has joined the coalition in opposition to this bill) has built-in scanning technology that has trouble distinguishing a cow from a horse. “The privacy implications are catastrophic.”
Worst of all, the bill would likely defeat its own noble purpose. Once backdoors are introduced into encrypted services, tyrannical governments, terrorists, cartels, and abusers of women and children will eventually get their hands on it. The likely victims will be journalists and whistleblowers, dissidents, and women and their children hiding in shelters from their persecutors.
“It means that healthcare information, financial details, conversations regarding air-traffic control, electricity grids, nuclear power plants, military maneuvers … none of it would be protected by end-to-end encryption,” blogger Matthew Hodgson writes on the Element blog. “Bad actors don’t play by the rules.”
Such a capability would also give governments the means to deepen the censorship of the internet. If anyone doubts official determination to do so, the UK government recently added an amendment to this bill that “posting videos of people crossing the Channel that show that activity in a positive light” should be considered “priority illegal content.” Imagine if such tools of censorship were to be applied by either U.S. political party to the controversies surrounding the southern border of the United States, or any other contentious issue.
Worse, the UK bill would hammer home the power of censorship, at least in the UK, with a threat of criminal sanctions for individual senior managers of online platforms. Hearing the tinkling of the jailer’s key, every executive would become a willing censor.
If the UK presses forward with this bill, it will break end-to-end encryption, “opening the door to routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages of friends, family members, employees, executives, journalists, human rights activists and even politicians themselves.” And that train of bad consequences will happen everywhere, including here in the USA.
Any decent person wants to combat child abuse and terrorists. But it should not come about by involving millions of innocent people as collateral casualties, while arguably undermining the very noble goals of this legislation. The recently departed novelist, Milan Kundera, wrote that “a man who loses his privacy loses everything.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is organizing a worldwide response. Americans can register our protest directly to Parliament here.