If passed in its current form, the Online Safety Bill would make the United Kingdom the first liberal democracy to require the routine scanning of people’s private chat messages, including chats secured by end-to-end encryption like WhatsApp and Signal. Implementing what is known as ‘client-side scanning’ to monitor users would likely violate UK and international human rights law.
ARTICLE 19 joined over 80 civil society organisations, academics, and cyber experts in raising alarm about the Online Safety Bill as it currently stands and in urging the UK government to remove end-to-end encrypted services from the scope of the Bill. Privacy is an essential element for people’s security online, especially for young people, activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, doctors, and journalists. Protected in Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, privacy also underpins the right to free expression and ensures that people can receive and transmit information securely without fear of being monitored or retaliated against.
The powers in the Bill could mean that the 40 million people relying on secure messaging services in the UK would have to download technology to their phones that would allow private messages to be scanned. This technology, known as client-side scanning (which has been heavily criticised by experts), will turn chats into spaces that are dangerous for privacy, security, and free expression. The UK government asserts that client-side scanning will not compromise privacy, but Ross Anderson, professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University and Edinburgh University, succinctly noted: ‘The idea that you can do surveillance while respecting privacy is just magical thinking.’
Not only will the monitoring of encrypted chats endanger users throughout the UK and those they are connected with, but mandating surveillance of citizens in the name of online safety gives hostile and abusive regimes an excuse to do the same. The UK would set a dangerous standard by passing the Online Safety Bill as it stands and put rights-based approaches to security at risk.
ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly called for a radical overhaul of the Online Safety Bill and for bringing it in line with human rights standards. This includes protecting privacy on encrypted platforms for all users.