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UK comes to its senses, will not push iMessage and WhatsApp to exit country

The UK's Investigatory Powers Act will not be amended with the controversial "spy clause" that would break chat encryption.
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Published onSeptember 6, 2023

WhatsApp logo on smartphone next to everyday accessories Stock photo 1
TL;DR
  • The UK will amend the Investigatory Powers Act with the controversial “spy clause,” but in a declawed state.
  • This clause, in its original form, would have allowed the UK government to break chat encryption.
  • Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal, and other chat apps would have exited the country if the amendment fully passed.

Back in July, we told you about a fierce statement Apple released in response to the United Kingdom’s government. In the statement, Apple threatened to pull iMessage and other services out of the country entirely if the government amended a bill with a so-called “spy clause.” This clause would have forced chat app developers to allow government officials to break chat encryption.

At the final hour, the UK government came to its senses and made the clause toothless (via Wired). Now, the government will update the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act with the new terms, but language will make the “spy clause” unenforceable. This means that, for now, iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal, and other encrypted chat services will not leave the UK.

“It’s absolutely a victory,” says Meredith Whittaker, president of the Signal Foundation, which operates the Signal messaging service. “It commits to not using broken tech or broken techniques to undermine end-to-end encryption (E2EE).”

Unfortunately, the reasoning the UK provided for declawing the bill wasn’t exactly what opponents wanted. Instead, the government admitted that there is no way currently to scan for illegal activity — most specifically child sexual abuse material, or CSAM — without also compromising users’ privacy. In other words, the country’s leaders still want to snoop on chats to find CSAM but need to wait until there’s a way to do this without necessitating breaking E2EE.

Of course, the idea of snooping on citizens — even for noble causes, such as preventing the distribution of CSAM — is a slippery slope. If the government can spy to find CSAM, what’s stopping it from snooping to find something else? What’s stopping it from snooping 24/7?

Signal’s Whittaker admits that a declawed bill isn’t as good as the complete removal of the “spy clause” from the Investigatory Powers Act. She does realize that this is a good step. “It’s major,” she said. “We can recognize a win without claiming that this is the final victory.”