The Online Safety Bill, which is currently at the Committee stage, will pose an unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security of all UK citizens and those they communicate with. That’s the view of WhatsApp, Signal, Threema and other encrypted messaging services expressed in an open letter earlier this week.
“We urge the UK Government to address the risks that the Online Safety Bill poses to everyone’s privacy and safety. It is not too late to ensure that the Bill aligns with the Government’s stated intention to protect end-to-end encryption and respect the human right to privacy,” the letter states.
“We don’t think any company, government or person should have the power to read your personal messages and we’ll continue to defend encryption technology,” the tech giants said.
“Weakening encryption, undermining privacy, and introducing the mass surveillance of people’s private communications is not the way forward.”The open letter
The group is afraid that the Bill as currently drafted could break end-to-end encryption, and open the door to indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages. Which could put communication to friends, family members, employees, executives, journalists, human rights activists and politicians at risk.
Meredith Whittaker, the President of Signal, said that “the UK’s online safety bill is an existential threat to safe and private communications. … Mass surveillance isn’t safety.”
Defence against malicious threats
The Bill wants to make it possible for the regulator to ask the platforms to monitor users, in order to fight child abuse, and the spread of abusive images.
A UK government official told the BBC that it’s possible to maintain both privacy and child safety, and said “we support strong encryption, but this cannot come at the cost of public safety”.
“Without amendments to the bill, it risks placing journalists, sources and whistleblowers in danger, creating a chilling effect that prevents individuals providing information that could help inform public interest journalism, and hold the powerful to account.”National Union of Journalists, UK
However, the group maintain that the Bill will weaken the privacy of billions of people around the world. The letter also argues that besides offering secure messaging, end-to-end encryption offers one of the strongest possible defences against malicious actors and hostile states, along with threats from online fraud, scams and data theft.
“The UK Government must urgently rethink the Bill, revising it to encourage companies to offer more privacy and security to its residents, not less. Weakening encryption, undermining privacy, and introducing the mass surveillance of people’s private communications is not the way forward,” the letter says.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), has also raised its concerns about the Bill, especially with protecting sources, which will be harder to do if messages are monitored.
“There is a duty to respect privacy in the bill, but the NUJ is concerned about how this can be adhered to if messages between journalists and sources, including about their location or confidential material, can be accessed,” NUJ said in a briefing.
“Without amendments to the bill, it risks placing journalists, sources and whistleblowers in danger, creating a chilling effect that prevents individuals providing information that could help inform public interest journalism, and hold the powerful to account.”
“The UK’s online safety bill is an existential threat to safe and private communications. Mass surveillance isn’t safety.”Meredith Whittaker, President of Signal
The open letter was signed by:
- Matthew Hodgson, CEO, Element
- Alex Linton, Director, OPTF/Session
- Meredith Whittaker, President, Signal
- Martin Blatter, CEO, Threema
- Ofir Eyal, CEO, Viber
- Will Cathcart, Head of WhatsApp at Meta
- Alan Duric, CTO, Wire