Amid tech industry objections, an official stands by a contentious messaging app safety law.

    The technology secretary has upheld a contentious segment of the Online Safety Bill that would compel messaging apps to grant access to the content of private messages if requested by the regulator, Ofcom. This measure is being justified as a prudent approach to safeguarding children from abusive content.

    However, certain tech companies, such as WhatsApp and Signal, have issued warnings that they might exit the UK if they are forced to compromise the security of their messaging platforms. The Bill is anticipated to receive approval in the autumn. Michelle Donelan announced £13 million in funding for Artificial Intelligence projects in healthcare during her visit to University College London.

    The tech industry and the cybersecurity community have both criticised the government’s proposal, which suggests that encrypted message content should be accessible if there’s a potential risk to children. Currently, messages sent using encryption are only viewable by the sender and receiver, not the tech companies.

    Popular messaging services like Meta’s WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage currently employ this security feature as the default. Concerns are being raised that once a method for access is established, it won’t solely be used by well-intentioned parties. Some companies are asserting that they would rather withdraw their services from the UK than compromise on security.

    Donelan emphasised that the government is not against encryption and that access would only be pursued as a last resort. She stated that the responsibility lies with tech firms to develop technology to address this issue. A technology called client-side scanning is being explored, where software is installed on devices to scan content and trigger alerts. However, this method has faced criticism and backlash, with Apple discontinuing a trial due to negative feedback.

    Ryan Polk, Director of Internet Policy at the Internet Society, expressed scepticism about the readiness of the technology. He highlighted that the UK’s National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction, and Adversarial Influence Online identified significant issues with the proposed technologies, stating that they undermine the end-to-end security and privacy necessary to protect citizens. Polk suggested that the government is turning a blind eye to the potential risks posed by the Online Safety Bill.

    The legislation is anticipated to return to the House of Commons in September.