The UK government has recently altered the Online Safety Bill to potentially oblige technology firms to scan encrypted messages for child abuse imagery. This amendment has drawn backlash from major tech companies like Signal, WhatsApp, and Apple, who argue it infringes on privacy rights.
In response to these concerns, the government (20.7.2023) mandates a preliminary report from a “skilled person” before the regulator, Ofcom, exercises these new powers. The report is expected to assess the impact on freedom of expression, privacy, and explore less intrusive alternatives. The bill also directs Ofcom to consider the implications on journalism and source protection.
Critics argue that these changes don’t adequately safeguard privacy. They contend that end-to-end encryption, which allows only the sender or recipient to read the message, means companies would need to scan messages pre-encryption. Such “client-side scanning” could significantly undermine privacy and security.
Amid these concerns, supporters, including children’s charity the NSPCC, argue that these powers are crucial for combating rising levels of online child abuse. They believe the bill provides a balanced resolution, encouraging tech firms to account for the risks of child sexual abuse when developing encryption features.