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Apple warning it could shut FaceTime, iMessage in UK over gov’t surveillance policy adds to growing tech industry discontent

We haven’t been able to confirm the substance of the BBC’s reporting with Apple which did not respond when we contacted it with questions about the story. However the tech giant recently elected to brief the broadcaster on its displeasure at another piece of (incoming) UK digital regulation — hitting out in a statement last month at the Online Safety Bill (OSB) as a risk to encryption.

In making critical remarks public Apple joined a number of major tech services that had already been warning over powers contained in the draft legislation they say could enable the Internet regulator to order platforms to remove strong encryption.

Of particular concern is a government amendment last year that put the bill on a direct collision course with E2EE by proposing the regulator, Ofcom, should have powers to force platforms to scan messages for child sexual abuse content (CSAM) — which, in the case of E2EE services, would likely require they implement client-side scanning by default (or otherwise backdoor encryption).

Privacy and security experts have lined up to warn over the security risks of such an approach.

As have other E2EE comms providers, including WhatsApp and Signal — who have suggested they would either stop offering service in the UK or else wait to be blocked by authorities rather than comply with a law they believe will compromise the security of all their users.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is another high profile critic. It, too, has suggested it could exit the UK if the government doesn’t rethink its approach.

Wikipedia’s concern for its service focuses on measures in the OSB related to age-gating and content censorship — ostensibly for child protection — which its founder, Jimmy Wales, has attacked as being “bad for human rights”, “bad for Internet safety and simply “bad law”.

“We would definitely not age gate nor selectively censor articles under any circumstances,” Wales told TechCrunch when asked to confirm Wikipedia’s position on the legislation, adding: “We’ve chosen to be blocked in China and Turkey and other places rather than censor Wikipedia, and this is not different.”

Despite the cavalcade of mainstream tech industry and expert criticism fired at the OSB ministers have — so far — only entrenched their position, claiming the legislation is a vital tool to fight CSAM and will also boost protections for children and other vulnerable web users.

Even concerns raised by the director of the research group selected by the government for a technical evaluation of a handful of “safety tech” projects given public funding back in 2021, as part of a Home Office competition to develop technology which can detect CSAM on E2EE services without comprising privacy, does not appear to have given ministers pause for thought.

“The issue is that the technology being discussed is not fit as a solution,” Awais Rashid, professor of cyber security at the University of Bristol and director of the Rephrain Centre, warned in a university press release earlier this month. “Our evaluation shows that the solutions under consideration will compromise privacy at large and have no built-in safeguards to stop repurposing of such technologies for monitoring any personal communications.

“Nor are there any mechanisms for ensuring transparency and accountability of who will receive this data and for what purposes will it be utilised. Parliament must take into account the independent scientific evidence in this regard. Otherwise the Online Safety Bill risks providing carte blanche for monitoring personal communications and potential for unfettered surveillance on a societal scale.”

The government’s willingness to ignore OSB critics may boil down to popular support based on its framing of the legislation as a vital child safety intervention.

Opposition to the bill within parliament has also been limited, with the opposition Labour Party broadly falling in behind the government to support the bill. Peers in the second chamber have also failed to respond to last minute calls to amend the legislation to ensure encryption is safe.

Following a final debate in the Lords last night, the Open Rights Group issued a statement — warning there had been no progress in ensuring the bill could not compromise encryption:

As it stands, the Online Safety Bill will give Ofcom the power to ask tech companies to scan our private messages on the government’s behalf. Despite having cross party support, the opposition withdrew an amendment that would at least ensure judges have oversight over these powers for government-mandated surveillance.

The government claims it will protect encryption but has still not provided detail about how this is possible if these powers are enacted. It is now left to tech companies, who may have to deal with notices asking them to weaken the security of their products.

The bill still has to pass through final stages which could include consideration of further amendments. But time is running out for the government to avoid a direct collision course with mainstream E2EE tech platforms. So far it’s preferred the fudge of claiming Ofcom would simply never ask E2EE companies to break their encryption — without providing legal certainty by specifying that in the bill.

The government took a similarly fuzzy approach to encryption in the IPA — which did not make it explicitly clear whether the law was essentially outlawing comms providers from using E2EE by containing powers were they could be mandated to hand over decrypted data. So there is something of a pattern in UK tech policymaking, over the past several years, where it touches strong encryption.

As for the planned changes to further extend the IPA notice regime, it remains to be seen whether Apple’s biggest threat yet — to yank FaceTime and iMessage out of the UK — gives government ministers cold feet or not.

Intelligence agency surveillance powers aren’t likely to be quite so easy to sell to the British public as populist claims to be clamping down on Big Tech to protect kids. But it’s notable that the Home Office statement in response to Apple’s threat cites catching “child sex abusers” as one of the missions the IPA was designed for.

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