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Planned EU rules to protect children online are attack on privacy, warn critics

By Alex Hern UK technology editor
primary school-aged girl using a laptop seen from behind
Messaging apps that do not comply with the obligation proposed by European Commission to detect newly created abuse images may have to close. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Critics have accused the European Commission of seeking to end encrypted communications after the EU’s executive body unveiled strict regulations for messaging apps intended to fight the spread of child sexual abuse imagery.

Under the proposed regulations, messaging services and web hosts would be required to search for, and report, child abuse material – even in the case of encrypted messaging services like Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp that cannot be scanned in such a way.

“Detection, reporting and removal of child sexual abuse online is urgently needed to prevent the sharing of images and videos of the sexual abuse of children, which retraumatises the victims often years after the sexual abuse has ended,” said Ylva Johansson, the EU’s commissioner for home affairs on Thursday.

“Today’s proposal sets clear obligations for companies to detect and report the abuse of children, with strong safeguards guaranteeing privacy of all, including children,” she added.

Andy Burrows, head of child safety online at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), welcomed the proposals, which he described as an “impressively bold and ambitious” attempt to “systemically prevent avoidable child abuse and grooming, which is taking place at record levels”.

He added: “If approved, it will place a clear requirement on platforms to combat abuse wherever it takes place, including in private messaging where children are at greatest risk.”

But the plans have also been criticised as an attack on privacy. “Private companies would be tasked not just with finding and stopping distribution of known child abuse images, but could also be required to take action to prevent ‘grooming’ or suspected future child abuse,” said Joe Mullin of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy group.

“This would be a massive new surveillance system, because it would require the infrastructure for detailed analysis of user messages.”

The regulation does not technically require providers to turn off end-to-end encryption entirely. Instead, it allows providers to apply automated techniques to scan for abusive material on users’ devices – a compromise that supporters say preserves privacy while also helping deter child abuse.

It is a similar approach to that proposed – but indefinitely postponed – by Apple, when the company suggested scanning photos before they were uploaded to its cloud storage.

Apple’s approach, however, only scanned photos looking for examples of existing child abuse imagery. The commission’s proposal includes a requirement to detect newly created images, and even to look for active grooming, which is far harder to successfully achieve with existing automated systems without compromising privacy.

It also suggests that app stores, like those run by Apple and Google, should be involved in enforcing the requirements, pulling apps that don’t comply with the scanning obligations.

Patrick​ ​Breyer, German MEP for the​ ​Pirate​ ​party, called the proposals “fundamental​ ​rights​ ​terrorism​ ​against​ ​trust,​ ​self-determination​ ​and​ ​security​ ​on​ ​the​ iInternet”.

He added: “The​ ​proposed​ ​chat​ ​control​ ​threatens​ ​to​ ​destroy​ ​digital​ ​privacy​ ​of​ ​correspondence​ ​and​ ​secure​ encryption.

“​Scanning​ ​personal​ ​cloud​ ​storage​ ​would​ ​result​ ​in​ ​the​ ​mass​ ​surveillance​ ​of​ ​private​ ​photos. Mandatory​ ​age​ ​verification​ ​would​ ​end​ ​anonymous​ ​communication.”

The​ ​proposal​ ​does​ ​not​ ​include​ ​the​ ​overdue​ ​obligation​ ​on​ ​law​ ​enforcement​ ​agencies​ ​to​ ​report​ ​and​ ​remove​ ​known​ ​abusive​ ​material​ ​on​ ​the​ ​net,​ ​nor​ ​does​ ​it​ ​provide​ ​for​ ​Europe-wide​ ​standards​ ​for​ ​effective​ ​prevention​ ​measures,​ ​victim​ ​support​ ​and​ ​counselling​ ​and​ ​effective​ ​criminal​ ​investigations.​

“This​ ​Big​ ​Brother​ ​attack​ ​on​ ​our​ ​mobile​ ​phones,​ ​private​ ​messages​ ​and​ ​photos​ ​with​ ​the​ ​help​ ​of​ ​error-prone​ ​algorithms​ ​is​ ​a​ ​giant​ ​step​ ​towards​ ​a​ ​Chinese-style​ ​surveillance​ ​state,” Breyer said.

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Dive Deeper:
EU to crack down on social networks over child sex abuse imagery
The European Commission presented its plan to fight online child sexual abuse material, which includes demanding the world’s biggest technology…
Google, Meta must find and remove online child pornography under EU draft rules
Google, Meta and other online service providers will be required to find and remove online child pornography under proposed European…
EU’s Plans to Combat Child Pornography Raise Privacy Concerns
The European Commission’s plan to combat child sexual abuse material online is already raising privacy concerns.
EU commission proposes plan to fight child pornography
The European Union’s executive arm has proposed requiring online platforms to detect and report the sharing of child sex abuse…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
'Horrific' child rapist sentencing sparks NSPCC plea to abuse victims
The charity spoke out after the "unimaginably cruel" crimes of Gareth Andrew Davis, 43.
How to watch the Tasmanian commission of inquiry and the harrowing details so far
The commission of inquiry was announced to investigate the Tasmanian government's responses to child sexual abuse in state institutions —…
Get all your news in one place