WhatsApp encryption

Home Office accused of ‘scaremongering’ campaign over messaging encryption

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The UK government has been accused of undertaking a “scaremongering” campaign against end-to-end encryption (E2EE) in a letter signed by internet experts and digital rights campaigners.

They said the UK Home Office was misleading the public with a TV, radio and newspaper advertising campaign - created by M&C Saatchi - that accuses social media companies which use encryption of “blindfolding” the government.

Among the signatories are former MI5 intelligence officer Annie Machon; Peter Tatchell Foundation; Open Rights Group; Index on Censorship; Reporters Without Borders; Digital Rights Watch, and the LGBT Technology Partnership.

They believe the new campaign has been launched to try to sway public opinion against E2EE prior to amendments to the Online Safety Bill that would allow the government to force technology companies to weaken or remove the technology from their messaging apps.

Last year, home secretary Priti Patel argued that it was a “moral duty” for tech companies to stop using E2EE in order to prevent sexual abuse of children online and improve the UK’s ability to tackle terrorism.

Facebook has defended its stance on E2EE, which is used in both its WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger services, as it argues that it helps users to keep their private information safe from cyber attacks.

In an open letter, 50 experts and Global Encryption Coalition members including Open Rights Group, Index on Censorship, the Internet Society, and Article 19 publicly criticised the campaign.

The letter reads: “Undermining encryption would make our private communications unsafe, allowing hostile strangers and governments to intercept conversations. Undermining encryption would put at risk the safety of those who need it most. Survivors of abuse or domestic violence, including children, need secure and confidential communications to speak to loved ones and access the information and support they need.”

Jim Killock from Open Rights Group said: “The way the government has been using scare tactics damages trust with its citizens. The government exploiting emotive narratives for their campaign is manipulative and does not provide a balanced view. The truth is that encryption is vital for online safety.”

In a speech in November 2021, Richard Moore, head of MI6, expressed his concerns about cyber security, saying that “the ‘digital attack surface’ that criminals, terrorists and hostile states seek to exploit against us is growing exponentially.”

The signatories of the open letter claim that moves to weaken E2EE would also “fundamentally” weaken the privacy and security of encrypted services such as WhatsApp and Signal.

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