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WhatsApp and Signal Say the UK's Online Safety Bill Puts Your Privacy at Risk

The bill could weaken end-to-end encrypted communication, the app-makers warned in a letter to the UK government.

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Nina Raemont Writer
A recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, Nina started at CNET writing breaking news stories before shifting to covering Security Security and other government benefit programs. In her spare time, she's in her kitchen, trying a new baking recipe.
Nina Raemont
2 min read
WhatsApp logo on a phone
Sarah Tew/CNET

Signal, WhatsApp and other encrypted chat apps have come together to sign a letter warning of privacy risks associated with the UK's new online safety bill.

In the letter, the app-makers said the bill, as it currently stands, fails to protect citizens' rights to privacy by effectively breaking end-to-end encryption and secure communication. Executives at Threema, Wire, Viber, Session, Element, WhatsApp and Signal signed the letter published Tuesday. 

The UK's ambitious online safety bill, which is working its way through Parliament, aims to keep people, especially children, safe online by requiring tech companies to protect users from illegal content and activity, including certain types of pornography and fraud. However, critics of the legislation say it poses a risk to cybersecurity and freedom of speech. 

The app-makers also said the bill could empower Ofcom, the UK's communication regulator, "to force the proactive scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services -- nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users." 

End-to-end encryption bars third parties from accessing communication between senders. Google, Apple, Facebook and other tech companies implement end-to-end encryption in their services as a way to protect people's privacy. But some officials and law enforcement have pushed against the technology due to the potential for it to shield bad actors. 

A spokesperson for Ofcom said, if the law is passed, the regulator will use its powers in a way that's "compatible with rights to privacy and freedom of expression," adding that the government is already working closely with companies to "provide clarity" on how to comply with the proposed safety and privacy rules. 

In March, Will Cathart, the head of Meta-owned WhatsApp, said the app would not comply with the provisions of the online safety bill if it were to be passed in its current iteration, suggesting the company would rather pull the app from the UK than weaken encryption.

The letter encourages the UK to rework parts of the online safety bill to strengthen encryption requirements bolstering online security. 

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