Apple logo | courtesy of TheTechLead

Apple, the global tech leader with a market share of 20%, has protested potential changes to the United Kingdom surveillance laws which could adversely impact its users. Big Tech warned that if the lawmakers continue to push the agenda, it would resolve to shut down FaceTime, and iMessage services in the region.

UK Lawmakers Seek To Update The Investigatory Powers Act

The UK government is working on a bill seeking to update the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) 2016, which will require all messaging services to pass all their security features through the Home Office before they are rolled out to the public, BBC outlined in a recent report.

According to the Home Office, the IPA “makes clear the circumstances in which the various investigatory powers may be used and the strict safeguards that apply, ensuring that any interference with privacy is strictly necessary, proportionate, authorized and accountable.”

Although the Act currently mandates the “Home Office demand security features are disabled” before the public is informed, the bill would make the order immediate.

Apple and other messaging providers find the proposed update a threat to user privacy considering, the law currently allows for a review as well as an independent investigation process. Notably, service providers have the option to appeal before any drastic action is taken.

Due to the confidentiality around these requirements, information about their dissemination is scanty, not to mention if they have been adhered to. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that numerous messaging platforms today feature end-to-end encryption (E2EE). This ensures that only the sender’s and the recipient’s devices can decode the content of a message.

The lawmakers, on one hand, argue that the changes are necessary, citing “technological changes risk having a negative effect on the capabilities of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies.”

On the other, they claim that they are “ready to work with stakeholders in the industry to develop reasonable proposals that will enable technology companies and government to continue to protect the public and their privacy, defend cyber security and human rights, and support technological innovation.”

Image of the guide to the online safety bill | UK.GOV

The bill seeks to give more power to investigatory agencies to lawfully gain “access to data in the interest of national security” so that they can effectively fight crime. The government argues that this crucial moment cannot be dedicated by “commercial reasons” at the expense of its citizens.

Technical Capability Notices (TCN), referred to as the tool through which the UK authorities can lawfully direct communication providers to modify their services, making them compatible with state surveillance activities under the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), emerged as one of the most contentious aspects of the legislation.

This resulted largely from the concerns repeatedly voiced regarding the ambiguity of the law, especially on whether it could compel communication service providers to deliberately avoid using end-to-end encryption (E2EE).

Apple Will Not Compromise E2EE

As a company known for taking the privacy of its users seriously, Apple is not ready to compromise the integrity of iOS software – and has threatened to remove two of its messaging services, iMessage and FaceTime from the UK entirely.

In a submission to the government, the American tech corporation reckoned that with such a mandate the Home Office will have control over the company’s security and encryption updates at a global scale, especially when all the requirements imposed on non-UK forms are considered. Apple, like other comms, operates on a global platform.

The proposed bill is likely to “make the Home Office the de facto global arbiter of what level of data security and encryption are permissible,” Apple said via a written statement seen by The Guardian.

Apple maintains that it has never provided a “backdoor” to its products and services and the UK government will not be an exception, warning that it would resolve to exit the region instead.

E2EE is the backbone of the tech giant’s two services, iMessage and FaceTime, and without it, they would quickly lose their intrinsic value.

“Together, these provisions could be used to force a company like Apple, which would never build a backdoor, to publicly withdraw critical security features from the UK market, depriving UK users of these protections,” Apple added.

An open letter signed by Alan Woodward, a professor of cybersecurity at Surrey University, argues that Apple is right to reject the proposed changes, implying that it would dilute data encryption. Woodward reckoned that government risks losing tech companies, which like Apple would also “stake in the ground.”

The online safety bill could end up alienating British users from the rest of the world as an insecure group. In such a case, “nobody wins,” he said.

The House of Lords had on Wednesday voted to approve an amendment on the same bill, regarding the examination of E2EE messaging.

According to another report by The Guardian, the amendment would demand that the communication regulator, Ofcom seek a “skilled person’s” report before demanding a comms service provider switch to use “accredited technology.” With this technology, the agency would scan the contents of messages to, for instance, fish out material on child sexual abuse.

How Are Other Messaging Platforms Reacting

Privacy advocates say that the bill is a tool by the government to coerce other messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal to abandon end-to-end encryption.

Regarding the amendment to the online security bill, Dr. Nathalie Moreno, a partner at the UK law firm Addleshaw Goddard focusing on data protection, AI, and cybersecurity “no information” has been released about the qualification of the “skilled person.” Will this person be a technical expert in the field, or simply a pollical appointment?

“Once the government has been granted powers to intercept private messaging services, that’s it, there’s no going back,” Moreno said.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has also joined the chorus of critics. The company has hinted at the possibility of withdrawing its services from the U.K. unless the government revises its current strategy.

The root of Wikipedia’s uneasiness is centered around the proposals in the Online Safety Bill (OSB) tied to age restrictions and content censorship. While these are alleged measures for child protection, Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, has assailed them as detrimental to human rights, harmful to internet safety, and straightforwardly a “bad law.”

“We’ve chosen to be blocked in China and Turkey and other places rather than censor Wikipedia, and this is not different,” Wales affirmed the company’s position.

WhatsApp and Signal, according to the BBC report, are among the messaging platforms that have vehemently opposed the proposed update to the IPA, especially the clause that allows Ofcom to demand companies incorporate a feature that scans for child-abuse material in their messaging apps and related services.

Like Apple, Signal vowed to “walk” from the UK. Despite the opposition, BBC said that the “government has opened an eight-week consultation on the proposed amendments to the IPA., which already enables the storage of internet browsing records for 12 months and authorizes the bulk collection of personal data.”

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