The spy clause in the Online Safety Bill will give Ofcom the power to ask private companies to scan everyone’s private messages on behalf of the government. It is state-mandated private surveillance.
This includes messages sent through WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook Messenger and iMessage, and direct messages sent through platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
This is something that authoritarian regimes do. In China, the WeChat service conducts surveillance of images and messages sent through smartphones.
Services that use end-to-end encryption will have to compromise their encryption in order to scan the content of messages. Signal have said that they would stop providing services in the UK if the Online Safety Bill forced them to undermine encryption. WhatsApp could also leave.
The Government could force companies like WhatsApp, Facebook and Signal to install ‘government accredited’ software on your phone, which can scan your private messages.
The Government says that it will only scan messages for images of child abuse. But once the technology in place, they could ask companies to scan for other content.
There is always mission creep when it comes to surveillance. Time and time again, the Government has given itself surveillance powers arguing that they are need to tackle terrorism and serious crime. They always end up being used for other reasons.
These new capabilities could be used to change your phone from a private device to a ‘spy in your pocket’.
The spy clause in the Online Safety Bill will give the UK some of the most extreme surveillance powers of any democracy.
Preventing child abuse should be a government priority. But there are more effective ways of tackling this crime than by scanning the private messages of the 40 million people in the UK who use messaging services.
For further information, please read our detailed briefing 'who's checking on your chats in private online spaces'