Security

UK tells messaging apps not to use E2E encryption for kids’ accounts

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child's hand touching tablet
Image Credits: Sally Anscombe / Getty Images

For a glimpse of the security and privacy dystopia the UK government has in store for its highly regulated ‘British Internet’, look no further than guidance put out by the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) yesterday — aimed at social media platforms and private messaging services — which includes the suggestion that the latter should “prevent’ the use of end-to-end encryption on “child accounts”.

That’s right, the UK government is saying: ‘No end-to-end encryption for our kids please, they’re British’.

And while this is merely guidance for now, the chill is real — because legislation is already on the table.

The UK’s Online Safety Bill was published back in May, with Boris Johnson’s government setting out a sweeping plan to force platforms to regulate user generated content by imposing a legal duty to protect users from illegal (or merely just “harmful”) content.

The bill controversially bundles up requirements to report illegal stuff like child sexual exploitation content to law enforcement with far fuzzier mandates that platforms take action against a range of much-harder-to-define ‘harms’ (from cyber bullying to romance scams).

The end result looks like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Except the ‘nut’ that could get smashed to pieces in this ministerial vice is UK Internet users’ digital security and privacy. (Not to mention any UK startups and digital businesses that aren’t on board with mass-surveillance-as-a-service.)

That’s the danger if the government follows through on its wonky idea that — on the Internet — ‘safety’ means security must be replaced with blanket surveillance in order to ‘keep kids safe’.

The Online Safety Bill is not the first wonky tech policy plan the UK has come up with. An earlier bid to force adult content providers to age verify users was dropped in 2019, having been widely criticized as unworkable as well as a massive privacy intrusion and security risk.

However, at the time, the government said it was only abandoning the ‘porn blocks’ measure because it was planning to bring forward “the most comprehensive approach possible to protecting children”. Hence the Online Safety Bill now stepping forward to push platforms to remove robust encryption in the name of ‘protecting children’.

Age verification technologies — and all sorts of content monitoring solutions (surveillance tech, doubtless badged as ‘safety’ tech) — also look likely to proliferate as a consequence of this approach.

Pushing platforms to proactively police speech and surveil usage in the hopes of preventing an ill-defined grab-bag of ‘harms’ — or, from the platforms’ perspective, to avoid the risk of eye-watering fines from the regulator if it decides they’ve failed in this ‘duty of care’ — also obviously conjures up a nightmare scenario for online freedom of expression.

Aka: ‘Watch what you type, even in the privacy of your private messaging app, because the UK Internet safety thought police are watching/might block you…’

Privacy rights for UK minors appear to be first on the chopping block, via what DCMS’ guidance refers to as “practical steps to manage the risk of online harm if your online platform allows people to interact, and to share text and other content”.

So, pretty much, if your online platform has any kind of communication layer at all then.

Letting kids have their own safe spaces to express themselves is apparently incompatible with ministers’ populist desire to brand the UK ‘the safest place to go online in the world’, as they like to spin it.

How exactly the UK will achieve safety online if government zealots force service providers to strip away robust security (e2e encryption) — torching the standard of data protection and privacy wrapping Brits’ personal information — is quite the burning question.

Albeit, it’s not one the UK government seems to have considered for even a split second.

“We’ve known for a long time that one of government’s goals for the Online Safety Bill is the restriction, if not the outright criminalisation, of the use of end-to-end encryption,” said Heather Burns, a policy manager for the digital rights organization Open Rights Group (ORG), one of many vocal critics of the government’s approach — discussing the wider implications of the policy push with TechCrunch.

“Recent messaging strategies promoted by government and the media have openly sought to associate end-to-end encryption with child abuse, and to imply that companies which use it are aiding and abetting child exploitation. So DCMS’s newly-published guidance advising the voluntary removal of encryption from children’s accounts is a precursor to it becoming a likely legal requirement.

“It’s also part of government’s drive, again as part of the Online Safety Bill, to require all services to implement mandatory age verification on all users, for all content or applications, in order to identify child users, in order to withhold encryption from them, thanks to aggressive lobbying from the age verification industry.”

That ministerial rhetoric around the Online Safety Bill is heavy on tub-thumping emotional appeals (to ‘protect our children from online nasties’) and low on sequential logic or technological coherence is not a surprise: Successive Conservative governments have, after all, had a massive bee in their bonnets about e2e encryption — dating back to the David Cameron years.

Back then ministers were typically taking aim at strong encryption on counter-terrorism grounds, arguing the tech is bad because it prevents law enforcement from catching terrorists. (And they went on to pass beefed up surveillance laws which also include powers to limit the use of robust encryption.)

However, under more recent PMs Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the child protection rhetoric has stepped up too — to the point where messaging channels are now being actively encouraged not to use e2e encryption altogether.

Next stop: State-sanctioned commercial mass surveillance. And massive risks for all UK Internet users subject to this anti-security, anti-privacy ‘safety’ regime.

“Despite government’s claim that the Bill will make the UK ‘the safest place in the world to be online’, restricting or criminalising encryption will actually make the UK an unsafe place for any company to do business,” warned Burns. “We will all need to resort to VPNs and foreign services, as happens in places like China, in order to keep our data safe. It’s likely that many essential services will block UK customers, or leave the UK altogether, rather than be compelled to act as a privatised nanny state over insecure data flows.”

In a section of the DCMS guidance entitled “protect children by limiting functionality”, the government department literally suggests that “private channels” (i.e. services like messaging apps) “prevent end-to-end encryption for child accounts”. And since accurately age identifying online users remains a challenge it follows that in-scope services may simply decide it’s less legally risky if they don’t use e2e at all.

DCMS’s guidance also follows up with an entirely bolded paragraph — in which the government then makes a point of highlighting e2e encryption as a “risk” to users, generally — and, therefore by implication, to future compliance with the forthcoming Online Safety legislation…

End-to-end encryption makes it more difficult for you to identify illegal and harmful content occurring on private channels. You should consider the risks this might pose to your users,” the UK government writes, emphasis its.

Whether anything can stop this self-destructive policy train now it’s left the Downing Street station is unclear. Johnson has a whopping majority in parliament — and years left before he has to call a general election.

The only thing that could derail the most harmful elements of the Online Safety Bill is if the UK public wakes up to the dangers it poses to everyone’s security and privacy — and if enough MPs take notice and push for amendments.

Earlier this month the ORG, along with some 30 other digital and humans rights groups, called on MPs to do just that and “help keep constituents’ data safe by protecting e2e encryption from legislative threats” — warning that this “basic and essential” security protocol is at risk from clauses in the bill that introduce requirements for companies to scan private and personal messages for evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Zero access encryption is seen by the UK government as a blocker to such scanning.

“In order to do this, the use of end-to-end encryption is likely to be defined as a violation of the law,” the ORG also warned. “And companies operating in the UK who want to continue to defend user privacy through end-to-end encryption could, under the draft Bill, be threatened with partial shutdowns, being blocked from the UK, or even personal arrests.”

“We call on Parliament to ensure that end-to-end encryption must not be threatened or undermined by the Online Safety Bill, and that services utilising strong encryption are left out of the Bill’s content monitoring and filtering requirements,” it added in the online appeal.

DMCS has been contacted with questions on the logic of the government’s policy toward e2e encryption.

In a statement yesterday, the digital minister Caroline Dinenage said: “We’re helping businesses get their safety standards up to scratch before our new online harms laws are introduced and also making sure they are protecting children and users right now.

“We want businesses of all sizes to step up to a gold standard of safety online and this advice will help them to do so.”

Update: A government spokesperson told us: “This is voluntary guidance to help SMEs and start-ups make their platforms safer. It recommends they consider the risks end-to-end encryption poses, particularly to children. We believe it is possible to implement end-to-end encryption in a way that is consistent with public safety and companies using it should ensure they have appropriate mitigations in place to safeguard children.”

DCMS also told us it supports strong encryption and claimed there is no contradiction between its stance on public safety and its ambition to grow the UK’s tech ecosystem, adding that it is clear that user confidence in the safety and security of digital technologies is essential for national growth.

UK publishes draft Online Safety Bill

UK quietly ditches porn age checks in favor of wider online harms rules

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