Lawmakers just keep trying to undermine the security of everyone’s conversations, putting Big Tech in an impossible position

Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.

“I have to write The Story again,” I sighed to my wife a couple days ago. Yes, it’s back: For the gazillionth time, lawmakers are proposing seriously undermining the security and privacy of everyone’s communications.

This time, it’s not in the name of national security or the fight against terrorism, but rather to protect children. The European Commission has proposed a law under which the likes of WhatsApp and Signal would need to scan people’s encrypted messages for child sexual abuse material (CSAM), and even for signs of possible “grooming.”

Both of these things are real problems, make no mistake. However, as cybersecurity veteran and Europol adviser Alan Woodward put it to me when I was interviewing him for my article, the EU executive is suffering from a case of “do-something-itis” and—if the proposal is not significantly changed during the legislative process—the result will be a law that puts Big Tech in “an impossible position.”

There are two ways to do what the proposal asks for. One is to weaken the end-to-end encryption of people’s messages to allow occasional access, which would be enormously and self-evidently dangerous. The Commission claims it isn’t trying to do this and wants to keep everyone’s communications private.

The only other way is to have the app maker scan people’s messages before or after they are encrypted, again removing the privacy of everyone’s conversations.

This is called “client-side scanning”—you may be familiar with it thanks to the Apple privacy debacle last year—and the proposal would leave safeguards up to the tech companies. Good luck applying those safeguards in an authoritarian country whose government would be delighted to be handed access to its citizens’ secret messages.

“The Commission’s draft is not compatible with our European values and collides with applicable data-protection law,” tweeted Ulrich Kelber, Germany’s federal data-protection commissioner.

What the Commission has come up with is “a nice political solution,” Woodward told me, but it doesn’t match technological reality: He recalled the immortal words of former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who, when confronted over the security paradox in his plans to force encryption back doors, said: “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Remember when, during Brexit negotiations, the U.K. claimed there would be no problem with customs checks on the Irish Republic–Northern Ireland border because some as-yet-uninvented technology would sort it all out? That never happened, and the underlying conundrum of how to have customs checks without a hard border now threatens to blow up the U.K.’s trading relationship with the EU.

I see a similar lesson in these two situations: You can’t make a long-standing paradox disappear by shouting “Technology!” and praying for the best—and trying to do so can be beyond dangerous. More news below.

David Meyer


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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