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Hard Choices for UK Gov – Block or Don’t Block WhatsApp and Signal

Friday, Mar 10th, 2023 (10:15 am) - Score 5,264
spying on uk ISP internet traffic

Two of the internet’s most popular secure messaging platforms, WhatsApp and Signal, have now both said that they would rather be blocked by the UK’s controversial new Online Safety Bill (OSB) than undermine the security (end-to-end encryption) of their platforms by allowing private messages to be filtered and moderated.

The confusing and ugly mess of legislation that is the OSB, which began life as an otherwise noble and desirable policy to help tackle “harmful” internet content (i.e. via fines, website blocks by broadband ISPs and other sanctions), has in recent years become somewhat of a Frankenstein’s monster.

Despite the very public talk of protecting children and the political focus on major social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter etc.), the OSB itself actually goes much further than that. The bill now risks placing a massive administrative and legal burden on even smaller sites / content providers, which could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression as content providers move to limit their liability. Some of its technical measures may even be outright unworkable.

One example of this is the endless debate over end-to-end encryption (E2EE), which is a method that any software developer can add to help keep everything from financial transactions, to website visits and messaging services secure. But unlike regular encryption, which can be broken by hackers and hostile states if the decryption keys are uncovered, E2EE goes further by ensuring those keys are kept hidden, even from the provider.

However, the UK Government has long been concerned that such technology can also be used to conceal conversations between criminals and terrorists or to spread child abuse, which makes it harder for the police and spies to catch them. Finding a balance on this front is difficult because E2EE is, at its most basic, something that any coder could add.

The OSB threatens to break this by handing Ofcom the power to require that encrypted-messaging and other such services adopt “accredited technology” for content moderation, such as to identify and remove child-abuse material. The problem for E2EE based services is that this approach is incompatible with how the technology works.

Signal and WhatsApp Rebel

The President of encrypted messaging app Signal, Meredith Whittaker, has now confirmed (here) that they would stop providing services in the United Kingdom, such as if required by the bill to weaken the privacy of its encrypted messaging system.

Meredith Whittaker said:

“Let me be blunt: encryption is either broken for everyone, or it works for everyone. There is no way to create a safe backdoor.

As a whole, the Online Safety Bill is a grab bag. Sensible proposals are positioned next to dangerous “spy clauses” and vague “duty of care” provisions that make providers responsible for policing the content of every message sent by every user. A report from the Internet Society makes the stakes clear: “the only way for service providers that offer end-to-end encryption to comply with this duty of care would be to remove or weaken the encryption that they offer.”

Experts from the UK-based Open Rights Group have also criticized the Bill’s potential to offer future configurations of the UK government “considerable leeway” to “introduce draconian and authoritarian-style censorship,” expanding the scope of government control over expression. Some supporters negligently assure the public that such mass government inspection of messages is compatible with strong end-to-end encryption. We know that it is not.”

The Head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, has similarly told the BBC that they “won’t lower the security of WhatsApp … We have never done that – and we have accepted being blocked in other parts of the world … We’ve never seen a liberal democracy do that. When a liberal democracy says, ‘Is it OK to scan everyone’s private communication for illegal content?’ that emboldens countries around the world that have very different definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing.

One possible way to get around this issue might be to adopt client-side scanning on the device itself (mobile, laptop etc.) that could check messages BEFORE they are sent, but that would still undermine the privacy of E2EE services. At the end of the day, you can’t allow one state or group to have special access to such platforms and then expect that not to be abused by others (e.g. hackers or less democratic countries).

Speaking personally, I also use secure message platforms, such as when communicating with important sources for some of the articles we write. Suffice to say, I would not want either the messaging provider’s staff or government to have any access to those conversations.

The difficulty for WhatsApp and Signal – as well as other E2EE using platforms – is that, if they continue to operate in the UK after the OSB has passed (assuming it passes in its current form, and it does have cross-party support), then the company could face massive fines worth up to 4% of its turnover. In the case of WhatsApp, that’s Meta’s annual turnover!

On the flip side, a huge amount of ordinary people in the UK use such services to communicate with friends, family and work colleagues across the world. At this point, though, it’s hard to know who the public would blame more if that facility were stopped, the government or the messaging providers. But one thing is certain, those who desire secure communications will simply switch to platforms that are beyond the reach of UK law.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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49 Responses
  1. Avatar photo lolfibre says:

    Always a hard one; to do a police state or not. It’s never about the children

  2. Avatar photo John says:

    It is not a hard choice at all. For the average person they do not want the government spying on them but for this authoritarian government they want as much control as possible, that’s why they are pressing ahead with:
    – digital IDs which will lead to social credit scores
    – CBDCs control your money control you
    – record amount spent on citizen surveillance. Here in London cameras everywhere and even when crimes happen under them, the cops claim they do not have resources, so it is clear the cameras are not for reducing actual crime
    – record high taxes to make you be able to afford less
    – 15min cities with labour/tories/libdem councils wanting to restrict your freedom of movement
    – adoption of neo marxist ideologies

    What they really want with ending the E2EE is full control of wrong think, just like the Chinese Communist Party has done with Wechat where you can’t do a search on anything that harms the party, going as far as including a ban on winnie the pooh searches. Just last year, 2300 people were arrested for twitter posts, this number will multiply if people get arrested for wrongthink on their PRIVATE conversations

    In these days using a VPN is an absolute necessity for everyone

    1. Avatar photo dave says:

      Paranoid much?

    2. Avatar photo John says:

      That’s exactly what people living in china say about others, until a person in their social circle gets arrested. Failure to see what is going on will lead to that

    3. Avatar photo rupert smith says:

      10/10 for including every conspiracy theory in one comment.

    4. Avatar photo Patrick says:

      Where exactly is the conspiracy? The government is literally advertising for digital IDs and CBDC roles. Head of CBDC is going for 60k pa


      Your ignorance does not make something a conspiracy

    5. Avatar photo haha says:

      Not just the Gov. Talk about anything with you phone nearby and wait 10 mins and go Amazon or Fareebook and I guarantee you will see an ad about it.

    6. Avatar photo Jammie says:

      Well Said John.

    7. Avatar photo Reality Bytes says:

      Thing is, the government’s policy is wrong: they shouldn’t be touching E2EE. The government as a whole have an authoritarian streak a mile long and a hundred feet wide and many people welcome it as they think the fallout will always land on ‘other’. However they can just point to things like John’s post and dismiss rational objections to it as embracing conspiracy theories.

      Glad we didn’t have this stuff around when the debate on escrowed encryption keys was had: rational people made rational objections and no-one went full tin foil hat.

    8. Avatar photo Luke says:

      Statists like Bytes will claim everything is a conspiracy without any arguments and not even a shred of critical thinking, even when there’s a link proving otherwise that he is replying to.

      It’s exactly why the govt gets away. I have never seen so many CCTVs as in London yet people are okay with them. Atleast they seem to be fighting against the ULEZ but for how long

    9. Avatar photo Reality Bytes says:

      The first two sentences of my comment literally state my objection to both the policy and creeping authoritarianism.

      Response ‘He’s a statist’.

      Nuance, like irony, is indeed dead.

      The link was to a LinkedIn post linking to an opinion piece that contained in it a link to the actual advertisement on LinkedIn.

      Pretty cunning advertising for the master of a secret plan to take the UK cash free on LinkedIn.

      Way more exciting theorising and it I suppose than reading the actually history of the BoE and digital currency and realising no plans for it to replace cash for now, they’ve been looking at it for decades, recent new drive due to be PM, etc, but hey ho.

      I don’t agree with whatever the cool kids that are so much smarter and better researched than me do, so I’m a statist.

    10. Avatar photo Stew Smith says:

      “the link posted is not obvious enough, I do not know of a website called Google and rather arrogantly attack people on the internet because I want to remain ignorant”


    11. Avatar photo Reality Bytes says:

      Could try reading the comments you’re replying to properly. Relevant section highlighted.

      ‘Way more exciting theorising and it I suppose than *reading the actual history of the BoE and digital currency and realising no plans for it to replace cash for now, they’ve been looking at it for decades, recent new drive due to be PM, etc, but hey ho*.’

      I read the job posting. I also read the BoE’s page on digital currency. I looked into the BoE’s history with it, too.

      I really don’t understand what’s so difficult to understand about that things aren’t always binary and there’s a lot of space between denial of everything and acceptance of everything but if you need to keep things simple that’s your call.

    12. Avatar photo Wilson says:

      Just ignore Bytes, when he can’t refute any of the points he just moves the goal post and/or devolves into insults

    13. Avatar photo Garth says:

      My friends I can tell you that we are already living in a Police state. Now they start Policing by feels and not law. We have no freedom of speech it’s now dead look at what happen to Lineker. Certain President of the USA and certain Prime Minister of this Country and Brexit have changed to World has we know it before. All our freedom are gone you all think the opposition Party and all the other smaller Parties in Parliament is coming to your rescue. You are sadly mistaken. They are all in it together, some even worst than the current one. Remember a past UK Prime Minister is now calling for digital ID really! This is what the Country come to when you allowed people who should not even come close to the leavers of Government much less to control it. The Country have been conned to vote against our own interest and self imposed economic sanctions. They are trying to take us back to the earlier years you have to wall, Cycle, ride Donkeys, Horses and only the Super Rich can drive. We need a new Political Party to give all these alot their P45.

    14. Avatar photo Ad47uk says:

      @Dave, maybe, but is he wrong? This country is becoming more of a police state

    15. Avatar photo Phil says:

      Spot on list. I would just add on the green washing trying to rely on solar and wind which are not reliable and the war on cars, most notably communist Khan charging people just for daring to have a car

      Biden is just a puppet who can barely climb stairs and has some nasty authoritarians giving him scripts to pass as much radical agenda as possible, going as ridiculous as trying to ban gas stoves. Handing out Afghanistan to terrorists, record trillions dollar spending bills causing massive inflation, trying to pay debts for his voterbase out of taxpayer pockets, raising taxes on everyone and pretending it’s only the rich, selling oil reserves to china, laundering money in Ukraine

      Garth is also spot on with the solution. All the main parties pretend to oppose each other but they collude in the same authoritarian evils. The “15min cities” is cross party

    16. Avatar photo Tom says:

      Sum one with a brain not the daily led sheep! Wake up they are slowly taking cash away restricting we’re we go and what we do! All the vivid scare tactics and lies! We are being controlled!! This is not freedom! Who said a bunch of rich greedy controlling old men should have the right to do any of this! This is no life. And we definitely have a bleak future because we don’t have the balls to make a stand!!! Sheep!!

  3. Avatar photo Fibre fantasy says:

    Filter and moderate private messages?

    They’re private! This isn’t Russia or China!

    1. Avatar photo NE555 says:

      That’s exactly what this about: government and/or service providers accessing the content of private messages, and detecting or blocking undesirable communication.

      If the messages are end-to-end encrypted, so even the service provider in the middle can’t read them, then they will have to be inspected on the device of the sender or receiver (e.g. by adding content scanning to the app itself)

      Yes: this is being proposed by our government, in our name.

    2. Avatar photo Duncan says:

      If only the issue was deleting or preventing certain words, if a character like Sturgeon gets in power then “misgendering” aka simply calling a spade a spade will get you arrested

    3. Avatar photo haha says:

      Of course once they get digital currency going you won’t be allowed a mobile as they will block you from buying one..

      I hope i am dead by 2030 – seriously it’s not a world I want to live in

  4. Avatar photo Terrencem says:

    If WhatsApp is so evil why was every member of the government sending thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of messages with it during the pandemic? Secrecy and privacy for me not for thee.

    1. Avatar photo haha says:

      Indeed – Well said!

  5. Avatar photo Gavin says:

    So for all the national security and safety issues of tiktok, the government ignores them and seeks to expose private conversations of its citizens using Signal and Whatsapp?

    Those priorities seem mixed up.

    1. Avatar photo haha says:

      I would welcome a ToxixTok ban I really would – from what I hear its terrible

  6. Avatar photo Ian says:

    E2E encrypted chat platforms seem to be a favourite of Tories when they want to chat with their incompetent government pals so we can assume that all of their yap about the supposed evils of these platforms is just yap for the papers.

    I invite idiot MPs to try banning encryption though, see how that goes. Maybe some of them will remember when the USA tried to ban the export of encryption tech back in the 90s, I’m sure many of us here will remember clicking past the dialog boxes informing us that we should not be using a piece of software outside of the USA.

    It’s a different world today of course and sure, they can try and block WhatsApp etc. but the absolute best outcome that they could hope for is big platform ecosystems like Google and Apple withdrawing various apps from their app stores. The tech would still exist and any presence WhatsApp etc. have in the UK would just withdraw voluntarily causing yet more needless economic damage.

    You cannot ban maths and the internet is designed to route around idiotic politicians.

    1. Avatar photo Wilson says:

      Argentina trying to ban Bitcoin to keep its citizens under the forced hyperinflation is a prime example of politicians trying to ban maths to the detriment of the population. You’ll own nothing and be happy

    2. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      Whilst that’s correct, we have the unfortunate and relatively unusual circumstance of a talentless and unpopular government who know full well they’ve already lost the next election, but they’ve got two years to cling to power with a massive parliamentary majority. That’s another two years of cronyism, corruption, dishonesty and criminally poor policy making. This bill is very much the brain child of Nadine Dorries (if the idea of brain child is applicable to anything associated with her) and that should tell anybody that it is a bill that should never be passed. Conservative MPs will rubber stamp this garbage regardless (and I’m pretty certain that if Labour were in power they wouldn’t have a similar bill in play).

      It’s also worth bearing in mind that the idea of being able to dig into people’s private communications is very much driven by the number of times our lying, thieving government have been embarrassed by leaks, and a key purpose here is be able to track down leakers and thus deter them. In that respect, this bill is very much about enhancing privacy, but only to protect the underhand activities of the political elite, people like Hancock, Johnson, Patel, Braverman, Zahawi et al and to avoid embarrassing leaks over things like police standards, fire safety, the latest public procurement fiasco.

    3. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      Edit: “and I’m pretty certain that if Labour were in power they WOULD have a similar bill in play”

    4. Avatar photo Reality Bytes says:

      Agreed, Andrew G. Both the first and second posts. The legislation should be offensive to any liberal democracy but is a reminder that we aren’t a liberal democracy anymore and a large proportion of the population couldn’t be happier as long as they think the infringements won’t impact them.

  7. Avatar photo Anthony says:

    They always say its to stop terrorism and child abuse just to try and get mass support of these schemes. But then every time when they get the actual powers they abuse them and call all their own citizens terrorists and child abusers – to these governments, not saying there are 900 different genders is classed by them as serious child abuse or saying we don’t migrants from certain religions to live in local hotels is classed as serious terrorism by PREVENT. Or saying we don’t want the vaccine. This is both terrorism and child abuse together.

    The government abuses its powers. Therefore encryption the government cannot get over clearly needs to remain. So good on Whatsapp and Signal. I hope all the VPN providers hold firm too.

    1. Avatar photo Sam says:

      Mass support can only be achieved by a having a near monopoly of the dissemination of information, which they almost do with the exception of a few independent non controlled outlets and citizen reporting through social media (the real goal of this bill).

      You see the likes of top cabinet members like Mordaunt attacking these outlets for exposing information they don’t like. In the US they are now hating on Fox News for revealing january 6 footage and how people wandered peacefully in the capital, stewarded by armed cops, completely killing the narrative that it was “the worst thing to happen since 9/11” and to this day still has people locked up

      It is political prosecution, go after the ones standing in the way to end up with only the obedient ones. Worked wonders in Hong Kong

    2. Avatar photo Reality Bytes says:

      Sam, that is the dumbest thing I’ve seen in a while: congratulations.

      Various documents from the Dominion case against Fox showing its presenters and management openly acknowledging they lie to viewers for ratings and you take their content seriously.

      They are being dunked on in that instance for cherry picking footage, much as given access to enough footage most awful incidents could be made to seem innocuous, and before that treating their audience like morons.

      It’s a weak attempt to rewrite history well documented at the time by eye witnesses, calls and many other documents, including the media and public comments of Republican politicians now bizarrely taking it all back and saying it’s fine. They’re presumably doing it for the same reasons Rupert Murdoch admitted to with regards to Fox’s unreal editorial slant post-2020 election in his sworn testimony: to stay on the right side of Trump.

      To be fair they seem to have the number of their audience going by how many continue to unquestioningly drink in the public output of those who in private and under oath openly admit lying to them.

      You and I live in entirely different realities and if I’m honest I’m quite grateful for that.

    3. Avatar photo Wilson says:

      You mean exactly like all media and leftist politicians cherry picking footage to make it seem like it was a horrible insurrection?

      How dare big mean Tucker release footage of the ScArY qanon shaman (who is actually a respectable marine veteran) going in, respecting the bollards, following the armed guards, saying a prayer, walking out following the guidance of the guards and then telling people to go home peacefully!!!

      And you are even wrong about to cherry picking because he did show there were some bad actors causing damage, just not the ones that were on a guided tour that all the media lied to you about and politicians WITHHELD FOOTAGE from the trial simply to manipulate public opinion

      You are just mad you have nothing to rage about and keep getting proved wrong by everyone

  8. Avatar photo Fibre fantasy says:

    I’ve forwarded this news story to the BBC and Sky news in the hope they will cover it. The wider/general public need to be aware of it.

    1. Avatar photo Jack says:

      I wish they did but they are tools of the regime and actually benefit from censored speech. Barely any outlet is covering censorship or any of the mentioned above. GB news could cover it, slim chance maybe telegraph picks it up

    2. Avatar photo Garth says:

      All the main stream media you name them will not inform the public of what is really going on behind the scene’s. In the upcoming May election everyone need to have a photographic ID in order to Vote Lord help us all. I will take my Passport and my Drivers Licence and display it to them and turn around and not Vote has a protest in solidarity with other people who don’t have such ID because, we are not a papers please society. People wake up an smell the coffee because it’s real it’s damn real.

    3. Avatar photo Phil says:

      You are right in the mainstream media hiding narratives, literally no mention of most of the bad stuff going on in the country instead it’s all Ukraine and idpol but voter ID is literally in YouTube ads, emails, letter drops

      Asking for basic ID to do something is not exclusive to voting either, and it is pretty standard pretty much everywhere in the world. Want to vote? Prove who you are. In the past council elections I could’ve easily voted for my neighbors who didn’t vote because the papers are in the open and they don’t check anything at all

  9. Avatar photo fsociety3765 says:

    In Signals case, there is no way to stop it’s existence because its free and open source. The source code is available on GitHub. Anyone could fork it and start up therir own service if they wanted to.

    Plus they already offer a proxy server which anyone can run. I run one personally so people living in authoritarian states that have blocked Signal, can access the Signal servers via the proxy server address.

    WhatsApp on the other hand claim to be E2EE but there is no way to verify this since the application is closed source. You can only trust WhatsApp as much as you would trust Zuckerburg.
    I’m not aware that they offer a proxy server application but I suppose they could if they wanted to.

  10. Avatar photo Roger_Gooner says:

    If WhatsApp pulls out of the UK I’d expect Skype usage to rocket.

    1. Avatar photo Jammie says:

      or telegram, Threema, Session.

  11. Avatar photo Ethel Prunehat says:

    My Poe’s Law detector is at risk of being worn out by the comments on this article!

  12. Avatar photo Mike says:

    One thing amazes me about this saga. It is that there is no rocket science involved in creating E2EE devices. Goto the OpenSSL website and it is all there, easy to pickup and use with very little effort. The only prerequisite is you need to know how to write code in C or similar.

    It is fanciful to believe that a well organised criminal or terrorist group gives a monkeys about the government thwarting their use of WhatsApp or the like. The DIY option is always available.

    I’m quite sure the government know this as well. So it would be useful for them to be honest about how effective they think this draconian legislation will be in the long term? My opinion is that they are piddling in the wind whilst generating sound bytes for public consumption. Yes it will be very effective against the isolated pervert.

  13. Avatar photo Steven says:

    WhatsApp, Signal, etc should run an early preview beta on every government employee/minister/whatever’s device that streams their messages to a public group 😀

    And then if the Gov still want weakened/no encryption they should roll it out to military and other Critical National Infrastructure looooong before the general public.

  14. Avatar photo Mm says:

    Use VPN to get around stupid government, simple and effective

  15. Avatar photo Andrew Jones-McGuire says:

    And once this bill passes, I wonder how long it will be before the Government start arguing that actually police shouldn’t require warrants to search people’s houses.

    You, know, because – we need to keep the children safe etc.

  16. Avatar photo Rob Davies says:

    What would be the options to continue to use WhatsApp in the UK if this bill passes in summer 2023

Comments are closed

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