The United Kingdom government is pulling back on a controversial plan to scan encrypted messages for harmful content, while simultaneously denying that it is doing so. The plan is part of the UK government’s Online Safety Bill, which is due to become law later this year.
The bill allows UK regulator Ofcom to force messaging services (including Apple) to use “accredited technology” to look for and take down child sexual abuse material.
However, a Financial Times report says the British government’s minister for arts and heritage, Stephen Parkinson, said on Wednesday that Ofcom would only be able to intervene if scanning content was “technically feasible” and if the process met minimum standards of privacy and accuracy.
It is possible that the needed tech tools might never be available, as tech firms have argued that this type of message scanning is impossible to be put in place without providing a way around the end-to-end encryption used in many of the messaging services.
The change in mindset for the UK government comes after Apple threatened to pull some of its services, including FaceTime and iMessage from UK users if the online safety bill was implemented in its current form. Meanwhile, WhatsApp and Signal have both threatened to pull all of their services from the UK.
Apple opposes being required to run any changes in their security features by the Home Office before they are released. The requirement would require non-UK companies to comply with changes that would affect their products internationally.
The proposals “constitute a serious and direct threat to data security and information privacy” that would affect people outside the UK, Apple says.
The Cupertino firm says that it would not make changes to security features specifically for one country that would weaken a product for all users. This indicates Apple may remove services like FaceTime and iMessage in the UK if the amendments proceed.
While the government appears to be pulling back on the messaging scanning plan, technology minister Michelle Donelan on Thursday denied that the bill had been watered down in the final stages before it becomes law.
“We haven’t changed the bill at all,” she told Times Radio.
“If there was a situation where the mitigations that the social media providers are taking are not enough, and if after further work with the regulator, they still can’t demonstrate that they can meet the requirements within the bill, then the conversation about technology around encryption takes place,” she said.
She said further work to develop the technology was needed, but added that government-funded research had shown it was possible.