Apple won’t be forced to pull iMessage and FaceTime out of the UK


iMessage and FaceTime
U.K. residents, looks like you get to keep using iMessage and FaceTime.
Image: Apple/Cult of Mac

The U.K. government dropped a plan that would have allowed it to access the contents of any online message looking for illegal content. It had sought a way around the encryption that protects messaging services like iMessage and WhatsApp.

Apple threatened to disable iMessage and FaceTime in the UK rather than submit to the proposal on the grounds that it would completely compromise the privacy of all users. Other companies said the same about their apps.

UK won’t demand a backdoor into encrypted messages

Apple executives regularly call privacy a fundamental human right. And it’s more than talk — the iPhone-maker has previously made moves to protect user privacy at the expense of law enforcement, including encrypting iCloud images so they can’t be scanned for illegal content. So it’s not a surprise that Apple opposed the U.K. plan to update to the Investigatory Powers Act.

iMessage and FaceTime encrypt messages automatically, so they can’t be read by anyone but the sender and receiver. The U.K. government wanted all messaging apps to have a “backdoor” for law enforcement to get around encryption. But experience shows that there’s no way to build a backdoor into security software and then keep hackers out. They always get through.

So, on Wednesday, the government backed off. “The UK government has conceded it will not use controversial powers in the online safety bill to scan messaging apps for harmful content until it is ‘technically feasible‘ to do so,” reports the Financial Times.

The U.K. government insists this is not actually a change. A minister told the House of Lords on Wednesday that the plan was always to hold off scanning messages until it was possible to do so without compromising encryption, according to the BBC.

Conflicting needs

The U.K. government says it wants the capability to scan messages to look for illegal child sexual abuse content. Everyone agrees that’s a worthy goal.

But there’s the problem of the backdoor being accessed by hackers, as noted. Beyond that, once a government has the ability to scan messages for one type of illegal content, it’s very easy to go fishing through messages for other types.

And other countries can easily take the U.K. law as precedent. They’ll want to scan all instant messaging for violations of their own laws, or anything apposed to a repressive regime. Before long, there’s no privacy.


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