No, the UK government did not back down on its plans to spy on encrypted messages

Many places reported that the British government had seen sense and backed down from its plans to require companies like Apple, Meta and Signal to give them back door access to end to end encrypted messages. Unfortunately, these reports were completely wrong.

All that the government did was acknowledge that Ofcom, the body which would issue notices to companies requiring them to scan their networks, could only do so if it was technically possible – in other words, that it would be pointless to attempt to demand companies do something they physically couldn’t. This is clear in the quote from Lord Stephen Parkinson, the minister responsible, in the original FT story:

“A notice can only be issued where technically feasible and where technology has been accredited as meeting minimum standards of accuracy in detecting only child sexual abuse and exploitation content,” he said.

That is a long way from a government retreat. And as it stands, the clauses requiring companies to endanger their users privacy and security remain in the bill.

The government has now confirmed this, with Michelle Donelan, the technology minister, saying saying:

“We haven’t changed the bill at all… If there was a situation where the mitigations that the social media providers are taking are not enough, and if after further work with the regulator they still can’t demonstrate that they can meet the requirements within the bill, then the conversation about technology around encryption takes place,” she said.

But the government is claiming it’s all technologically feasible:

She said further work to develop the technology was needed, but added that government-funded research had shown it was possible. (My emphasis)

The government is not backing down. It believes it’s possible technically, and will attempt to make companies comply. It will do this in secrecy, and it doesn’t give a damn about the privacy or security of the British people. The fight is not over.

Ian Betteridge @ianbetteridge