24 years ago, the Human Rights Act was passed and the right to privacy was declared a fundamental right in the UK. Today, in times of rapidly expanding online public spheres, this human right is under grave threat.
Something fundamental is at stake: our ability to hold private conversations.
A combined total of about 47 million people in the UK use messaging apps like Whatsapp and Signal. It is clear that the UK is online and connected. However, the privacy of our online conversations is under threat. So who is trying to undermine our ability to speak without large corporations and governments snooping on our conversations and why?
Enter the Online Safety Bill.
The Bill threatens our right to privacy online, particularly on messaging platforms, by attacking the technology that keeps our conversations secure.
This technology is called end-to-end encryption. Encryption ensures that when messages are sent from sender to receiver, one phone to another, the message gets locked in secret code that only unlocks itself when it reaches the receiver. This ensures that nobody except the intended person, can read the message being sent. This technology is crucial to the safety of journalists, human rights defenders, whistleblowers and vulnerable groups both in the UK and all over the world.
Here are three ways in which the Bill aims to put an end to end-to-end encryption and consequently, undermines and endangers our fundamental right to privacy.
1. Mandating that private messaging services compromise encryption:
The Bill compels companies to weaken their security systems in specific circumstances. It mandates messaging services to give the state access to encrypted, private data upon request. Failure to comply would result in large, disabling fines.
Encryption is a critical technology that helps us keep information & communications confidential. Weakening it will put everyone at risk.
WhatsApp and Signal who provide end-to-end encrypted services, will be at the mercy of this legislation, compromising the safety and security of their large customer bases in the process.
2. Client-side scanning:
Perhaps the most disturbing risk to encryption in the Online Safety Bill a is the looming threat that the state could mandate a surveillance technique called “client-side scanning” to scan private channels for certain types of content including abusive material.
While the aim of tackling illegal content of this kind is laudable, the Government’s plans are entirely disproportionate and include scanning the messages of millions of users across entire messaging platforms without suspicion. This means that everyday conversations held in private, by law-abiding citizens, will be read by Silicon Valley companies and government bodies.
Ultimately, this opens doors to great levels of surveillance which have, in different parts of the world including China, Russia, India, and Turkey, led to a deep decline in democratic expression.
3. Censoring free speech online:
The idea of end-to-end encryption being compromised creates a chilling effect that will inevitably impact free expression online. .
If the privacy of our messaging channels is compromised, then the ability to use them to speak freely is compromised too. Ironically, in lieu of regulating the powers of Big Tech, this Bill in fact empowers Big Tech further, by sanctioning these platforms to scan and surveil our online activity more than ever.
Undermining encryption leaves people unsafe and unprotected from bad actors, and governments alike. Now, more than ever, we must fight for privacy and freedom online. There’s a long way to go but we’re fighting for a free future every step of the way.