Snooping on our WhatsApp is a step too far

We rely on private and secure messaging services to keep our personal information and correspondence safe. Privacy is essential in many situations. Whether we’re communicating with a loved one, seeking advice on a sensitive situation, or sharing pictures on the family WhatsApp group. For some people such as journalists, whistle-blowers, or the Ukrainians fighting Russia it can be a matter of life or death. The ability for people to communicate privately is a human right and a long-standing cornerstone at the foundation of Liberal Democracy and Western values.

Government ministers and the security services make no secret that they want to spy on your private messages and WhatsApp groups. Our last Home Secretary vocally opposed Meta’s intention to make Facebook messenger DMs encrypted by default.  Default end-to-end encryption is important as it means people can’t spy on your messages. Sadly this is not a new trend. Brian Paddock previously sounded the alarm when another Conservative Home Secretary Amber Rudd was looking to take the same draconian approach.

Being able to message someone privately and securely keeps us safe, yet it is being put at risk by a bill that incorrectly claims to promote safety. It asks companies that provide services such as WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, to monitor the content of messages. It also empowers OFCOM to compel providers of user-to-user messaging services to run accredited software to scan, detect and report instances of CSEA or terrorism.

The Online Safety Bill doesn’t explain how this might technically work, most likely it would involve something called ‘client-side scanning’. This is where software is installed on every device and scans your private messages before they are sent. The Open Rights Group has stated this amounts to installing a ‘spy in the pocket’ of every mobile phone user. Any messages the software ‘thinks’ contains prohibited material could be either blocked and/or reported automatically to authorities. This sort of software will certainly lead to false accusations as happened recently when Google reported a man to the Police. 

Recently we saw an example of someone’s private messages being used against them when private messages on Facebook were handed over to the Police to assist in prosecuting a Woman in an abortion case. This highlights the risk women in the US could face if more states move to criminalise abortion. What happens if we see a similar erosion of women’s right to choose here in the UK?

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the Orwellian potential of technology that scans your communications as a private citizen and reports them to the authorities. Often these surveillance methods are justified on the most hideous of crimes, but then in practice once normalised are routinely applied to everyday transgressions.

Authoritarians throughout the ages would have loved the ability to spy on all the private communications of those they want to control. China provides a perfect example of what a modern digital surveillance state starts to look like. For these reasons, attempts to start automatically snooping on our private messages contained within the Online Safety Bill need to be opposed by Liberal Democrats.

We know what proponents of surveillance say “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”. This response comes from a place of privilege. A place where the laws and rules of society are protecting your interests, and the idea you might be victimised, or persecuted who or what you are has never crossed your mind.

If you feel you have ‘nothing to hide’ then spare a thought for those who do. Whether that is the Hong Kong democracy campaigner locked up in jail, the Ukrainian resistance fighters relying on encryption, women in the US who now face the prospect of abortion surveillance, the person trying to reach out to escape an abusive relationship, the vulnerable child trying to seek help without their abuser knowing, the Government whistle-blower who exposes corruption, the journalist protecting their sources.

Private communication is the friend of the vulnerable, the underdog, and the individual. It is a friend to a Liberal, free and open society. No wonder authoritarians hate it.

* Cllr James Baker is the leader of Calderdale Liberal Democrats and the Campaigns and grassroots activism manager for the Open Rights Group.

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  • Thanks James for this interesting article.

    How much of what you are referring to here is from the awful Online Safety Bill (you do refer to the bill but it’s unclear)? I’ve been following coverage and analysis of this dreadful piece of legislation, noting that its criticism (focused on threats to free speech and other civil liberties) has come exclusively from liberals on the right of the political spectrum, with silence from liberals on the left of the political spectrum.

    Of late we have been relying on liberals on the right to uphold a lot of core liberal principles in relation to civil liberties, with liberals on the left either silent or antagonistic about the erosion of civil liberties, especially freedom of speech. But liberals on the right (in the UK at least) have always been weak on the subject of government snooping and other things in the name of “security”, something liberals on the left are traditionally stronger on. But until now, I hadn’t heard about this aspect of the Online Safety Bill. If it is the case this is a good chance for liberals on the left to regain so much lost credibility on the subject of civil liberties

  • James Baker 22nd Sep '22 - 3:40pm

    Hi James, yes it’s the Online Safety Bill that contains these provisions about snooping on private messaging services such as Whats App. It’s clause 104 of the act that enables Ofcom to force a provider to undertake the survillance.

  • “Mother should I trust the government?” Roger Waters

  • An important article. The Online ‘Safety’ Bill (OSB) is a disturbingly dangerous piece of legislation. As well as the danger already highlighted, this legislation also enables extensive state censorship by proxy with consequent insidious self-censorship…

    ‘Deafening Silences: propaganda through censorship, smearing and coercion’ [23rd. September 2022]:

    The dangers to democracy and rational debate: online harm legislation and dis/misinformation ‘fact checkers’

    In the UK, the proposed bill creates a category of legal but ‘harmful’ speech: as described by the pressure group Big Brother Watch:

    “Under the threat of penalties, the legislation will compel online intermediaries to censor swathes of online discussion including in matters of general discourse and public policy. Harmful content is defined entirely by the Secretary of State who is also granted a host of executive powers throughout the legislation.”

    Liberty has explained further the potential dangers of such developments: […]

    And, as Lord Sumption points out regarding the proposed UK online harm bill:

    “The real vice of the bill is that its provisions are not limited to material capable of being defined and identified. It creates a new category of speech which is legal but ‘harmful’. The range of material covered is almost infinite, the only limitation being that it must be liable to cause ‘harm’ to some people. Unfortunately, that is not much of a limitation. Harm is defined in the bill in circular language of stratospheric vagueness.”

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