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Data & Privacy Technology

Why we’re safer without the UK government’s Online Safety Bill

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By Gordon Young, Editor-in-Chief

September 6, 2023 | 4 min read

Legislation is well-intentioned, accepts editor-in-chief Gordon Young, but we should beware its unintended consequences.

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Tech giants have warned they will pull services from the UK / Photo by Asterfolio on Unsplash

On the week Simon Byrne, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland resigned because of a data breach that saw details of all its officers leaked, the Online Safety Bill returns to the UK parliament for its final stages.

The juxtaposition will focus minds – and so it should. Provisions in the new law would require social media companies to give security forces access to the encrypted messages of their users.

The Police of Northern Ireland is the latest example of a series of public sector leaks and IT debacles. Today in Northern Ireland, Catholic police officers have been permitted to carry guns to mass, so fearful are they that their identities are now known to extremist elements of their communities.

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The idea that giving UK police forces access to our phones will somehow make us all safer is clearly for the birds.

The aim of the new law is motivated by the best of intentions. It is to ensure that people do not use encryption to gain access to illegal content such as child sexual abuse material.

It now wants companies to scan the content of users’ encrypted messages for harmful content, as well as establish the right to approve any future security-related software updates.

However, the likes of Apple, Meta and Signal have said they will simply refuse to comply with the law, and instead withdraw some services from the UK market. They fear that putting a back door into their system for the government will also offer a way in for criminals and rogue states.

Technology minister Michelle Donelan has made it clear she is prepared to call their bluff. Speaking to The Telegraph she said: “My counterparts in other countries say they are going to copy our piece of legislation. I would ask where are these companies going to go because this is a movement across the globe.”

But of course, big tech argues that the whole point of encryption is to guarantee our online safety. Engineers have taken years to perfect it and now almost everything we do – chatting with friends, sharing client data or collaborating with colleagues – relies on some form of encryption

.As a recent open letter by academics put it: “There is no technological solution to the contradiction inherent in both keeping information confidential from third parties and sharing that same information with third parties.”

They point out that the government is effectively placing a policeman in our pocket – and a peephole into life for bad actors. Of course, there are privacy concerns too. For example algorithms alone may not be able to decipher which explicit content is legal and which isn’t.

Police forces who cannot even protect their personnel data could soon be tasked with checking your photographs.

Nobody can challenge the importance of fighting child abuse. But we’d all be safer being protected by encryption rather than being protected from encryption.

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