Sunday, 28 Nov 2021

EU accused of 1984-style data surveillance in bid to monitor people’s phones

EU’s reaction to triggering of Article 16 discussed by Parker

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Data protectionists have sounded the alarm over the EU’s proposal to monitor smartphones in a bid to fight child pornography. They fear the surveillance plan won’t help the cause but take the bloc’s countries a step closer to resembling the type of totalitarian societies described in George Orwell’s book 1984.

It is currently not possible to control messenger services such as WhatsApp, which are protected through end-to-end encryption even for providers and manufacturers.

But using a monitoring technology called Client-Side Scanning (CSS), that could change and allow European law enforcement officials to automatically search chat histories and images posted on smartphones.

A step in this direction was already taken last summer when the European Parliament approved a controversial law that will give digital companies permission to detect and report child sexual abuse on their platforms for the next three years.

Apple laid out an image-scanning scheme in August that, after facing widespread criticism from privacy groups and campaigners, was put on hold by the company. “We have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features,” it said in a statement.

But the EU is now building a case for its own version of the system, which may spark even greater concerns.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson is currently working on a draft law that, if passed, will allow the bloc to enforce automatic control of chats and media content.

The go-ahead would mean every smartphone could in future include a crime scanner, with artificial intelligence identifying illegal images sent by users. This includes child pornography, the seduction of minors by adults or even terrorism.

However, as senior technologist Erica Portnoy wrote at the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Unfortunately it’s not that simple.”

She said: “Client-side scanning would render the user privacy and security guarantees of encryption hollow.

“Even a well-intentioned effort to build such a system will . . . open the door to broader abuses.”

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Laying out the risks that come with the EU’s surveillance plan, Daniel Kretzschmar, a spokesman for the Association of German Criminal Police Officers, told the German paper Welt: “On the one hand, the focus of the investigators will be on people who are not under suspicion, and on the other hand, incomprehensible selections of what to report will also be made by the companies.”

Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger, head of the institute for cyber criminology at the University of Police in Brandenburg, does not think actual perpetrators will be caught this way.

He told the Austrian paper Exxpress: “They know what they are doing and will resort to alternatives.

“Presumably, USB sticks and other data carriers will then be used again.”

More than a dozen researchers published a study last month that concluded: “It should be a national-security priority to resist attempts to spy on and influence law-abiding citizens.”

Calling the technology “dangerous”, the report, titled Bugs In Our Pockets, warned it could eventually be used by authoritarian governments to track down political dissidents.

“Is it prudent to deploy extremely powerful surveillance technology that could easily be extended to undermine basic freedoms?” the researchers asked.

Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg

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