WhatsApp, Signal and Element: Online Safety Bill ‘poses an unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security of every UK citizen’

Open Rights Group welcomes calls by WhatsApp, Signal and Element for a re-think of government proposals that could force them to undermine the encryption of their services.

In a letter published today, seven tech companies say that the Bill, “poses an unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security of every UK citizen and the people with whom they communicate around the world, while emboldening hostile governments who may seek to draft copy-cat laws”.

Their concerns are centred around the ‘spy clause’ in the Online Safety Bill, which gives Ofcom the power to compel tech companies to scan private messages sent by their customers. To do this, the companies will have to break the end-to-end encryption that keeps the messages of their customers private and secure.

Open Rights Group’s Policy Manager Dr Monica Horten said:

“The “spy clause”  appears to mean  Ofcom-sanctioned mass surveillance of over 40 million British citizens’ private communications. We  urgently need clarification from the government as to its intentions. We urge peers to support Lord Clement-Jones’ amendment that would remove private messaging platforms from the ambit of  these disproportionate measures.”

The proposals would affect messages sent through WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook Messenger and iMessage, and direct messages sent through platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Government could force companies  to install ‘government accredited’  software on phones, which could scan  private messages. 

The Government says that it will only scan messages for images of child abuse. But once the technology in place, they could ask companies to scan for other content and as the companies’ letter states: “As currently drafted, the Bill could 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, which would fundamentally undermine everyone’s ability to communicate securely.”

ORG is calling for the spy clause to be removed from the Bill. Read the letter signed by Signal, WhatsApp, Element, Session, Threema, Viber and Wire.