EU commission working on allowing automated searches of the content of private and encrypted communications

25. November 2021

The EU Commission is working on a legislative package to combat child abuse, which will also regulate the exchange of child pornography on the Internet. The scope of these regulations is expected to include automated searches for private encrypted communications via messaging apps.

When questioned, Olivier Onidi, Deputy Director General of the Directorate-General Migration and Home Affairs at the European Commission, said the proposal aims to “cover all forms of communication, including private communication”.

The EU Commissioner of Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, declared the fight against child sexual abuse to be her top priority. The current Slovenian EU Council Presidency has also declared the fight against child abuse to be one of its main priorities and intends to focus on the “digital dimension”.

In May 2021, the EU Commission, the Council and the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement on an exemption to the ePrivacy Directive that would allow web-based email and messaging services to detect, remove, and report child sexual abuse material. Previously, the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) had extended the legal protection of the ePrivacy Directive to private communications related to electronic messaging services. Unlike the General Data Protection Regulation, the ePrivacy Directive does not contain a legal basis for the voluntary processing of content or traffic data for the purpose of detecting child sexual abuse. For this reason, such an exception was necessary.

Critics see this form of preventive mass surveillance as a threat to privacy, IT security, freedom of expression and democracy. A critic to the agreement states:

This unprecedented deal means all of our private e-mails and messages will be subjected to privatized real-time mass surveillance using error-prone incrimination machines inflicting devastating collateral damage on users, children and victims alike.

However, the new legislative initiative goes even further. Instead of allowing providers of such services to search for such content on a voluntary basis, all providers would be required to search the services they offer for such content.

How exactly such a law would be implemented from a technical perspective will probably not be clear from the text of the law and is likely to be left up to the providers.
One possibility would be that software checks the hash of an attachment before it is sent and compares it with a database of hashes that have already been identified as illegal once. Such software is offered by Microsoft, for example, and such a database is operated by the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children in the United States. A hash is a kind of digital fingerprint of a file.
Another possibility would be the monitoring technology “client-side scanning”. This involves scanning messages before they are encrypted on the user’s device. However, this technology has been heavily criticized by numerous IT security researchers and encryption software manufacturers in a joint study. They describe CSS as a threat to privacy, IT security, freedom of expression and democracy, among other things because the technology creates security loopholes and thus opens up gateways for state actors and hackers.

The consequence of this law would be a significant intrusion into the privacy of all EU citizens, as every message would be checked automatically and without suspicion. The introduction of such a law would also have massive consequences for the providers of encrypted messaging services, as they would have to change their software very fundamentally and introduce corresponding control mechanisms, but without jeopardizing the security of users, e.g., from criminal hackers.

There is another danger that must be considered: The introduction of such legally mandated automated control of systems for one area of application can always lead to a lowering of the inhibition threshold to use such systems for other purposes as well. This is because the same powers that are introduced in the name of combating child abuse could, of course, also be introduced for investigations in other areas.

It remains to be seen when the relevant legislation will be introduced and when and how it will be implemented. Originally, the bill was scheduled to be presented on 01 December 2021, but this item has since been removed from the Commission’s calendar.