Apple has criticised proposed legislation outlined in the UK government’s Online Safety Bill (OSB), which would oblige messaging services, including WhatsApp and Signal, to scan user’s private conversations for child abuse material.

Apple told the BBC that the bill should be amended to protect encryption.

The OSB was first published in a draft form, in 2021, and is currently making its way through parliament.

Apple’s criticism of the OSB comes as over 80 national and international civil society organisations, academics and cyber-experts signed an open letter sent to the UK government over the “serious threat to private and encrypted messaging” posed by the OSB.

The letter describes the OSB as a “deeply troubling legislative proposal” as, if passed in its current form, it will set the UK on a path to become the “first liberal democracy to require the routine scanning of people’s private chat messages, including chats that are secured by end-to-end encryption,”

End-to-end encryption is a measure that has been built into many popular messaging services to protect private conversations from being read by anybody outside of the chat, including the platform provider itself.

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By GlobalData

Apple said in a statement that “End-to-end encryption is a critical capability that protects the privacy of journalists, human rights activists, and diplomats.”

While the proposed legislation would enable law enforcement to identify the sharing of child sexual abuse material, it could have negative affects on law-abiding citizens.

By forcing encrypted services to add in workarounds, the chance of opening entry-points for hackers increases, leaving users vulnerable to bad actors leveraging compromised systems.

Apple’s statement detailed the importance of encryption in helping “everyday citizens” evade “surveillance, identity theft, fraud, and data breaches.”

“The Online Safety Bill poses a serious threat to this protection, and could put UK citizens at greater risk. Apple urges the government to amend the bill to protect strong end-to-end encryption for the benefit of all,” according to the statement.

If passed in its current form, the OSB would require UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, to mandate scanning technology on messaging apps to survey user’s private conversations.

The technology, called client-side scanning, would be used to detect and eventually block illegal images.

Leading encryption platforms have already voiced concerns.

In February 2023, Signal said it would “absolutely, 100% walk” if encryption were to be subject to the OSB’s new rules.

WhatsApp has indicated that it would rather cease operating in the UK than weaken the privacy of its encrypted messaging, according to the BBC.