BoF: ‘European Commission wants to get rid of encryption’

If it is up to the European Commission, companies must do everything possible and impossible to monitor internet users. This means, among other things, that providers of chat applications must devise a way to circumvent end-to-end encryption. Every company has to decide for itself which technological solution it wants to use. The bill has yet to be presented, but already threatens to turn out to be “disastrous”.

That writes Rejo Zenger, policy advisor at Bits of Freedom, in an opinion piece.

Major concerns about the European Commission bill

Today the European Commission presents a bill to tackle the sexual exploitation of children. Although the plans are not yet final, there are already a lot of rumours about the content on the internet.

One of the aspects presumably mentioned in the proposal is client-side device scanning. This means that technology companies remotely scan mobile phones and other devices for child pornographic images. Or other forms of child abuse. Privacy experts are very concerned about this, wrote earlier today.

According to Zenger, the European Commission wants to force companies to look over the shoulder of internet users. If they suspect the possession or distribution of child pornography material, they must remove this information or report it to the police. But it goes even further, according to the policy advisor. “Internet service providers can also be ordered to monitor their users’ internet traffic.”

Eavesdropping on users

The European Commission does not know exactly how companies should do this. And that can create worrying scenarios. Take an application like WhatsApp. This shields messages with end-to-end encryption. This allows only the sender and receiver to read messages. Even WhatsApp does not know the content of the chats.

The only way for WhatsApp to bypass end-to-end encryption and read users’ messages is to install spyware-like software. “For the sake of convenience, the Commission leaves that decision to the platform,” said Bits of Freedom. The day-to-day management of the EU thus gives the impression that it wants to get rid of encryption.

‘Sooner or later things will go wrong

Zenger says he may sound a bit pessimistic. After all, safeguards have been built into the bill to protect the privacy and security of users. For example, an order to wiretap customers may only be issued if existing measures are insufficient. The summation must also be proportional: if the negative consequences for those involved outweigh what the bell is trying to achieve, it may not be issued. So you could conclude that installing spyware is too much of an invasion of users’ privacy.

“But the proposal also says: ‘The choice of technology is up to the company, as long as the requirements of this law are met,’” cautions Zenger. “Based on the leaked proposal, that is coffee grounds. Unfortunately, our many years of experience teaches us that you should interpret legislative proposals in their worst reading. What can go wrong, will go wrong sooner or later.”

He fears that police or other law enforcement agencies could order providers to block Internet access to specific pages.

Bill promises to be ‘disastrous’

Zenger thinks we can prepare for “one of the most emotional political debates in European politics”. In his view, the bill is damaging to trust in our digital communication. In addition, it is linked to a socially sensitive subject: tackling and combating child abuse. “It will be the debate in which rational arguments, even more than usual, will be defeated in favour of the gut,” fears the policy advisor.

The bill promises to be “disastrous” anyway. “The European Commission is depriving companies of any incentive to make their service more secure. That could be interpreted in the current political debate as a step against the purpose of this law. As a step that is not against the sexual abuse of children. No company wants to be in the limelight like this,” argues Zenger.

Addressing the problem of child abuse requires a broader view, according to Bits of Freedom. “The European legislator must therefore focus on other measures. For example, streamlining cross-border criminal investigations, strengthening cooperation between different services and eliminating the enormous backlogs of the vice squad,” Zenger concludes his contribution.

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