Apple warning it could shut FaceTime, iMessage in UK over gov't surveillance policy adds to growing tech industry discontent
HomeHome > News > Apple warning it could shut FaceTime, iMessage in UK over gov't surveillance policy adds to growing tech industry discontent

Apple warning it could shut FaceTime, iMessage in UK over gov't surveillance policy adds to growing tech industry discontent

May 28, 2023

The list of mainstream Internet services that could shut down in the U.K. over security risks attached to government policymaking just got longer: The BBC is reporting Apple has threatened to shutter local access to its end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) comms services, FaceTime and iMessage, if minsters don’t rethink a plan to further beef up existing (intrusive) surveillance powers.

In recent months we’ve heard similar warnings from Meta-owned WhatsApp, Signal Messenger and Wikipedia in relation to other components of the U.K.’s digital policy they view as harmful to their users’ interests — so it’s by no means the first warning that Brits could miss out on access to mainstream web services if ministers don’t rethink their approach to tech policy.

In the case of Apple’s latest warning, its target is government plans to further expand digital surveillance powers available to state intelligence agencies. Last month the Home Office announced a consultation on changes to a regime of notices that can be issued to comms providers to retain or intercept user data under the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act (IPA).

Among the changes being proposed by ministers is a requirement that messaging services clear security features with the Home Office before releasing them. They would also have to act immediately on a demand to disable security features — rather than, as currently, being able to wait until after a review of the request has been carried out and/or the outcome of any appeal made by the company.

The government argues the updates to the notices regime are necessary because “technological changes risk having a negative effect on the capabilities of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies”.

Although it also claims it is “committed to working with industry, and other relevant stakeholders, 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”.

So called Technical Capability Notices — the instrument through which the U.K. state can, via the IPA, legally instruct comms providers to make changes to their services in order that state surveillance capabilities can function — were among the most controversial elements of the legislation, with concerns repeatedly raised that the law was unclear over whether comms providers could be ordered not to use E2EE.

Reached for a response to Apple’s warning it could shut down FaceTime and iMessage if the government goes ahead with the planned changes to the IPA notices regime, a Home Office spokesperson sent this statement — which notes no decisions on how to update the powers have yet been taken:

The first job of government is to keep the country safe and investigatory powers are an essential tool for protecting our citizens.

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 is designed to protect the public from criminals, child sex abusers and terrorists. With strong independent oversight, the Act regulates how intrusive investigatory powers by public authorities are used. We keep all legislation under review to ensure it is as strong as it can be and this consultation is part of that process — no decisions have yet been made.

The updated powers the government is proposing pose an increased security risk to web users everywhere, per Apple — which the BBC reports opposes requirements to inform the Home Office of any changes to product security features before they are released; and opposes taking action immediately if a notice to disable or block a feature is received from the Home Office, rather than waiting until after the demand has been reviewed or appealed against.

Apple also opposes a requirement for non-U.K.-based companies to comply with changes that would affect their product globally — such as providing a backdoor to E2EE, per the BBC.

The company also told the broadcaster it would not make changes to security features for one country that would weaken a product for all users. And pointed out that some changes would require issuing a software update so could not be made secretly. The BBC’s report also quotes Apple describing the proposal as constituting “a serious and direct threat to data security and information privacy” that would affect people outside the U.K.

We haven’t been able to confirm the substance of the BBC’s reporting with Apple which did not respond when we contacted it with questions about the story. However the tech giant recently elected to brief the broadcaster on its displeasure at another piece of (incoming) U.K. digital regulation — hitting out in a statement last month at the Online Safety Bill (OSB) as a risk to encryption.

In making critical remarks public Apple joined a number of major tech services that had already been warning over powers contained in the draft legislation they say could enable the Internet regulator to order platforms to remove strong encryption.

Of particular concern is a government amendment last year that put the bill on a direct collision course with E2EE by proposing the regulator, Ofcom, should have powers to force platforms to scan messages for child sexual abuse content (CSAM) — which, in the case of E2EE services, would likely require they implement client-side scanning by default (or otherwise backdoor encryption).

Privacy and security experts have lined up to warn over the security risks of such an approach.

As have other E2EE comms providers, including WhatsApp and Signal — who have suggested they would either stop offering service in the U.K. or else wait to be blocked by authorities rather than comply with a law they believe will compromise the security of all their users.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is another high profile critic. It, too, has suggested it could exit the U.K. if the government doesn’t rethink its approach.

Wikipedia’s concern for its service focuses on measures in the OSB related to age-gating and content censorship — ostensibly for child protection — which its founder, Jimmy Wales, has attacked as being “bad for human rights”, “bad for Internet safety and simply “bad law”.

“We would definitely not age gate nor selectively censor articles under any circumstances,” Wales told TechCrunch when asked to confirm Wikipedia’s position on the legislation, adding: “We’ve chosen to be blocked in China and Turkey and other places rather than censor Wikipedia, and this is not different.”

Despite the cavalcade of mainstream tech industry and expert criticism fired at the OSB ministers have — so far — only entrenched their position, claiming the legislation is a vital tool to fight CSAM and will also boost protections for children and other vulnerable web users.

Even concerns raised by the director of the research group selected by the government for a technical evaluation of a handful of “safety tech” projects given public funding back in 2021, as part of a Home Office competition to develop technology which can detect CSAM on E2EE services without comprising privacy, does not appear to have given ministers pause for thought.

“The issue is that the technology being discussed is not fit as a solution,” Awais Rashid, professor of cyber security at the University of Bristol and director of the Rephrain Centre, warned in a university press release earlier this month. “Our evaluation shows that the solutions under consideration will compromise privacy at large and have no built-in safeguards to stop repurposing of such technologies for monitoring any personal communications.

“Nor are there any mechanisms for ensuring transparency and accountability of who will receive this data and for what purposes will it be utilised. Parliament must take into account the independent scientific evidence in this regard. Otherwise the Online Safety Bill risks providing carte blanche for monitoring personal communications and potential for unfettered surveillance on a societal scale.”

The government’s willingness to ignore OSB critics may boil down to popular support based on its framing of the legislation as a vital child safety intervention.

Opposition to the bill within parliament has also been limited, with the opposition Labour Party broadly falling in behind the government to support the bill. Peers in the second chamber have also failed to respond to last minute calls to amend the legislation to ensure encryption is safe.

Following a final debate in the Lords last night, the Open Rights Group issued a statement — warning there had been no progress in ensuring the bill could not compromise encryption:

As it stands, the Online Safety Bill will give Ofcom the power to ask tech companies to scan our private messages on the government’s behalf. Despite having cross party support, the opposition withdrew an amendment that would at least ensure judges have oversight over these powers for government-mandated surveillance.

The government claims it will protect encryption but has still not provided detail about how this is possible if these powers are enacted. It is now left to tech companies, who may have to deal with notices asking them to weaken the security of their products.

The bill still has to pass through final stages which could include consideration of further amendments. But time is running out for the government to avoid a direct collision course with mainstream E2EE tech platforms. So far it’s preferred the fudge of claiming Ofcom would simply never ask E2EE companies to break their encryption — without providing legal certainty by specifying that in the bill.

The government took a similarly fuzzy approach to encryption in the IPA — which did not make it explicitly clear whether the law was essentially outlawing comms providers from using E2EE by containing powers were they could be mandated to hand over decrypted data. So there is something of a pattern in U.K. tech policymaking, over the past several years, where it touches strong encryption.

As for the planned changes to further extend the IPA notice regime, it remains to be seen whether Apple’s biggest threat yet — to yank FaceTime and iMessage out of the U.K. — gives government ministers cold feet or not.

Intelligence agency surveillance powers aren’t likely to be quite so easy to sell to the British public as populist claims to be clamping down on Big Tech to protect kids. But it’s notable that the Home Office statement in response to Apple’s threat cites catching “child sex abusers” as one of the missions the IPA was designed for.

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