The draft Online Safety Bill (OSB) has sparked security and online privacy concerns according to a new survey – although Ofcom has brushed off the scrutiny.
Under the new OSB, which is in its final stages of passing through parliament, authorities could force communication providers like WhatsApp to scan online messages sent in the UK in order to detect criminal activity.
More than 80 per cent of UK respondents believe conversations on messaging services should have the highest level of security and privacy, according to a new survey conducted by independent research firm, Opinium, for encrypted messaging app Element.
“No one, including WhatsApp, should have the power to read your personal messages,” said Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp at Meta.
“People want their messages to remain private and secure. WhatsApp will not weaken the security we provide,” he added.
The survey also reported over 40 per cent of respondents fear the OSB’s approach could compromise national security by creating a “honeypot” that attracts foreign hackers who could view sensitive information.
An Ofcom spokesperson said the watchdog “will not review all harmful online messages sent in the UK or have an open back door into online conversations. We will be shining a light on the steps tech firms are taking to protect their users.
“Once the Online Safety Bill passes, we will use our powers in a way that is compatible with rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”
“Criminals and rogue nations will rejoice,” said Matthew Hodgson, CEO of Element, adding that “surveilling our online conversations will only push criminals to other platforms, while reducing security for good actors.”
One government impact overview of the bill states: “We have included strong safeguards that will help mitigate concerns around this power,” referring to Ofcom’s new capacity to scan private conversations.
A Department for Science, Innovation and Technology said “we are unambiguously pro-innovation and pro-privacy, however we have made clear that companies should only implement end-to-end encryption if they can simultaneously prevent abhorrent child sexual abuse on their platforms.
“The Online Safety Bill does not give Ofcom or the government any powers to monitor users’ private messages. As a last resort, and only when stringent privacy safeguards have been met, the Online Safety Bill will enable Ofcom to direct companies to either use, or make best efforts to develop or source, technology to identify and remove illegal child sexual abuse content.”
The draft OSB intends to increase social media companies’ responsibility for online user safety.