Home Office accused of ‘scaremongering’ campaign over message encryption

The UK government has been accused of undertaking an “alarmist” campaign against end-to-end encryption (E2EE) in a letter signed by internet experts and digital rights campaigners.

They said the UK Home Office was misleading the public with a TV, radio and newspaper ad campaign – created by M&C Saatchi – that accuses social media companies that use encryption of “blindfolding eyes” to the government.

Signatories include Annie Machon, a former MI5 intelligence officer; Peter Tatchell Foundation; Open Rights Group; Censorship index; Reporters Without Borders; Digital Rights Watch and the LGBT Technology Partnership.

They believe the new campaign was launched in an attempt to sway public opinion against E2EE ahead of amendments to the Online Safety Bill that would allow the government to force tech companies to weaken or remove the technology from their messaging apps.

Home Secretary Priti Patel argued last year that it was a “moral duty” for tech companies to stop using E2EE in order to prevent online child sexual abuse and improve the UK’s ability to fight terrorism.

Facebook has defended its stance on E2EE, which is used in both its WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger services, as it claims it helps users protect their private information from cyberattacks.

In an open letter, 50 experts and members of the Global Encryption Coalition, including Open Rights Group, Index on Censorship, Internet Society and Article 19, publicly criticized the campaign.

The letter reads: “Undermining encryption would make our private communications dangerous, allowing hostile outsiders and governments to intercept conversations. Undermining encryption would jeopardize the security of those who need it most. Survivors of abuse or domestic violence, including children, need secure and confidential communications to talk to loved ones and access the information and support they need.

Jim Killock of Open Rights Group said: “The way the government has used scare tactics is hurting the trust of its citizens. The government that exploits emotional narratives for its campaign is manipulative and does not provide a balanced view. The truth is that encryption is vital for online security.

In a speech in November 2021, Richard Moore, head of MI6, expressed concerns about cybersecurity, saying “the ‘digital attack surface’ that criminals, terrorists and hostile states seek to exploit against us knows exponential growth”.

Signatories to the open letter say moves to weaken E2EE would also “fundamentally” weaken the privacy and security of encrypted services such as WhatsApp and Signal.

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