Tech firms could be told to scan Brits’ private messages for child abuse images

Tech companies could soon be forced to scan UK citizens' private phones and messages for child sexual abuse material.

The government has proposed a new policy as part of its controversial online safety bill that would see encrypted WhatsApp messages and other apps spied on by tech firms in the hope of stopping child abusers.

If tech companies don't comply or go ahead with new encrypted privacy features, they could face massive fines under the plans.

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The UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, as well as child safety campaigners, have blasted tech firms' plans to introduce new privacy features for users as "not acceptable".

Mark Zuckerberg's firm Meta currently plans to introduce end-to-end encryption for messages on Instagram and Facebook, which would ensure only the sender and recipient of a message can see it.

The changes come amid massive criticism of tech companies for misusing private data, but campaigners have warned that it could prevent the police from catching criminals.

Rob Jones, director general for child sexual abuse at the National Crime Agency, says "tech companies need to be on the frontline" of tackling between 550,000 and 850,000 people in the UK who pose a 'risk to children'.

If tech companies don't use their "best endeavours" to build new technology that monitors people's phones, the government watchdog Ofgem could slap them with fines of up to £18 million or 10% of their global turnover.

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However, the proposals could have a negative impact on user privacy, and previous plans to monitor users' messages have come under fire.

For instance, Apple's plans to scan users' iCloud images for sexual abuse material were suspended due to privacy concerns.

Privacy campaigners have warned that there is 'no way' to make these scanning technologies be used for 'good purposes' only, and that they could open the door to more widespread state surveillance. It is also unclear how an app like WhatsApp, which uses end-to-end encryption, could introduce the measures without fundamentally changing its design.

Prof Woodward of the University of Surrey told the BBC: "The big issue will be that any technology that can be used to look at what is otherwise encrypted could be misused by bad actors to conduct surveillance."


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