Encryption: Why texting your friends on WhatsApp could soon be illegal

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

WhatsApp has sparked new fears that it could be banned in the UK as the Online Safety Bill heads into law.

The company has made clear that it will not comply with any requests to weaken its security from the UK government.

And it fears those requests could be made under the new legislation which could be heading back to parliament this summer.

WhatsApp – and other messaging platforms, such as Signal – have urged the UK government to protect the encryption technology that ensures their messages stay secure as they are sent.

Without them, the service could end up being illegal in the country, they have warned. It could lead to a situation where it might very soon be illegal to message friends on WhatsApp.

What is the point of the Online Safety Bill?

The legislation attempts to address what ministers claim are a host of dangers that are posed by the internet, to both adults and children. That includes content that is illegal – such as child sexual abuse and terrorism – as well as “harmful” content such as pornography and bullying.

Much of that will be achieved by putting more responsibility on technology platforms for the kind of content they host. They will be required to stop such content from appearing, or remove it quickly when it does, for instance.

It has proven controversial in a variety of ways, including the extra powers it gives to regulator Ofcom over technology platforms. But chief among those controversies is the worry about encryption.

What is encryption?

Encryption really just means encoding information so that it can only be read by people with a code. It has been used for centuries and it has been an important and sometimes controversial part of computing for decades.

It protects everything from internet banking information as it is sent over the internet to the data stored on people’s phones.

But the really controversial bit at the moment – and for the past few years – is end-to-end encryption in messaging services. That works by ensuring that only the sender and recipient of a message (or really their devices) have the key that can open a message, and so only they can read them.

Because it is end-to-end, that encryption keeps even the services themselves from reading messages. That in turn means they cannot give those messages over to anybody else, such as law enforcement.

What does encryption have to do with the Online Safety Bill?

If social media platforms are going to be required to act on the content that is being shared on them, then they need to know what it is. But the point of end-to-end encryption is precisely that those platforms can’t see that content.

The Online Safety Bill doesn’t explicitly ban or limit encryption, and the government has given statements indicating that it supports the technology. But critics have argued that should be explicitly written into the legislation, which it is not.

And so platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal fear that they will be subject to demands to hand over that content or to otherwise look at what their users are sharing. The only way to do that would be to weaken their security.

They have made clear that they will refuse to do that, and therefore put them on a collision course with the government. That is where the threat of a ban has come from.

How would a ‘ban’ actually happen?

Nobody really knows for sure: at the moment it is more a warning or a danger than it is a concrete scenario. But that doesn’t mean that companies and the government are not necessarily practically planning for it, at least behind the scenes.

In reality, it would take a long time before a ban would actually be required. First off, regulators would make a request with a “technology notice”, which WhatsApp and Meta would have to turn down, at which point penalties would be on the table.

The legislation gives authorities the ability to impose large fines on people and companies that do not comply with those technology notices. It is at this point that Meta would have the option of continuing to operate in the UK, or leave so that it is no longer under the jurisdiction of the law.

WhatsApp would still presumably be accessible at that point: it is a global service, and in practice is available anywhere with an internet connection, and it has suggested that it would not restrict the service from the UK even if it was forced to leave.

It would be at that point that the government could take the decision to restrict the app, by blocking citizens’ connections to it, as has happened in countries such as Iran.

Even at that point, the app would probably still be accessible: in those countries where it has been blocked, users are still able get online, through a variety of tricks such as virtual private networks. But WhatsApp has stressed that it still sees this as a problem.

As such, a whole set of steps are required before a ban would actually go into effect, and there is no firm indication that anyone involved is actually considering it. The government might also be wary about imposing such a ban given so much of the UK’s establishment runs on the app.

But WhatsApp warns that it would be possible, and that therefore the legislation needs to include more specific language to rule it out.