The European Commission has published draft legislation which obliges communication service providers such as Telegram and WhatsApp to automatically check individual chats before they are sent, and to install back-doors in smart phones that would bypass encryption safeguards, with some of the most prominent civil liberty and digital privacy groups warning the move would amount to the end of online privacy in Europe.
Ostensibly, the EU’s plan is to fight child pornography, but given the blanket scanning abilities being promoted, the plan would allow mass access to EU citizens’ data without targeted individuals ever being accused of any wrongdoing. It would also set the stage for further privacy encroachments in the future, including related to hate speech or simple political dissent.
In response to the proposal, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit dedicated to protecting online privacy and digital freedom, wrote:
“The Commission’s new demands would require regular plain-text access to users’ private messages, from email to texting to social media. Private companies would be tasked not just with finding and stopping distribution of known child abuse images, but could also be required to take action to prevent ‘grooming,’ or suspected future child abuse. This would be a massive new surveillance system, because it would require the infrastructure for detailed analysis of user messages.
“The new proposal is overbroad, not proportionate, and hurts everyone’s privacy and safety. By damaging encryption, it could actually make the problem of child safety worse, not better, for some minors. Abused minors, as much as anyone, need private channels to report what is happening to them. The scanning requirements are subject to safeguards, but they aren’t strong enough to prevent the privacy-intrusive actions that platforms will be required to undertake.”
The European Commission appears to be focusing, at least for the moment, on the serious issue of child pornography and child abuse to break dissent to the proposal.
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“With the current regulations, which rely on voluntary disclosure and reporting by companies, children are demonstrably not adequately protected,” the European Commission stated.
The EU executive referred to a global study from 2021, according to which at least one in five children was a victim of sexual violence. More than one of three minors had already been confronted with sexual advances online, noted the source.
Nevertheless, the proposal has faced strong opposition because of vast potential for abuse, including from European civil society groups like the European Digital Rights (EDRi), the Netherlands’ Bits of Freedom, Germany’s Society for Civil Rights, and Austria’s epicenter.works, according to a report from the EFF.
“The European Union prides itself on high standards for data protection and privacy, as demonstrated by the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. This new proposal suggests the EU may head in a dramatically different direction, giving up on privacy and instead seeking state-controlled scanning of all messages,” warned the EFF.
Criticism also came from Germany’s Chaos Computer Club (CCC), which referred to the susceptibility of current AI to come up with false positives and fear of a potential restriction on civil liberties.
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“The so-called artificial intelligence that scans for abusive content will also falsely describe the content as illegal,” the CCC claimed.
If every message is searched regardless of suspicion, the software will probably work with normal photos and videos to determine whether they constitute child pornography, which means mass scanning of all Europeans’ personal content.
The Child Protection Association of Germany has also rejected the nationwide scanning of encrypted communication. Board member Joachim Türk stated that most illegal online activities do not occur via messenger services but via forums and the dark web.
Facebook also opposes the measure
“Scanning technologies, which try to proactively access news content without the personal consent and control, could be used by criminals, hackers or authoritarian regimes and endanger the security of the people,” criticized Meta, the parent company of Facebook, in mid-April.
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However, Germany’s left-wing federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser praised the EU project, saying that she was pleased EU politicians were preparing to implement such a proposal. According to Faeser, her employees will now carefully examine the European Commission’s draft and get involved intensively in the negotiations in the European Council.