Apple aligns with critics against scanning encrypted messaging applications.
Apple has raised concerns about provisions in the Online Safety Bill that could potentially compel encrypted messaging services like iMessage, WhatsApp, and Signal to scan messages for child abuse material. This criticism from Apple comes as 80 organisations and tech experts have written to Technology Minister Chloe Smith, urging a reconsideration of these powers.
The government argues that companies must take steps to prevent child abuse on their platforms. End-to-end encryption (E2EE), employed by apps such as WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage, ensures that only the sender and recipient can read the messages, providing strong privacy protection.
However, law enforcement agencies and certain child protection charities argue that E2EE hampers their ability to identify and combat the sharing of child sexual abuse material.
The Online Safety Bill, currently being reviewed in Parliament, includes provisions that could empower the communications regulator Ofcom to direct platforms to use accredited technology for scanning message contents. The government assures that these powers will only be used as a last resort, with stringent privacy safeguards in place.
Messaging platforms like Signal and WhatsApp have previously stated that they would refuse to compromise the privacy of their encrypted systems if mandated to do so. Signal even threatened to exit the UK if required to weaken its encrypted messaging app’s privacy.
With Apple’s recent statement, some of the most widely used encrypted messaging apps now oppose this aspect of the bill. The government argues that technological solutions can be implemented to scan the contents of encrypted messages for child abuse material. However, critics argue that the only way to achieve this would be to install software for client-side scanning, which would significantly undermine message privacy.
In 2021, Apple faced backlash when it announced plans to scan photos on users’ iPhones for abusive content before uploading them to iCloud. These plans were eventually abandoned. Apple has now made it clear that it opposes any measure that weakens the privacy provided by end-to-end encryption.