Tag: Messenger Apps

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.

 

US court unsuccessfully demanded extensive information about user of the messenger app Signal

16. November 2021

On October 27th, 2021 Signal published a search warrant for user data issued by a court in Santa Clara, California. The court ordered Signal to provide a variety of information, including a user’s name, address, correspondence, contacts, groups, and call records from the years 2019 and 2020. Signal was only able to provide two sets of data: the timestamp of when the account was created and the date of the last connection to the Signal server, as Signal does not store any other information about its users.

The warrant also included a confidentiality order that was extended four times. Signal stated:

Though the judge approved four consecutive non-disclosure orders, the court never acknowledged receipt of our motion to partially unseal, nor scheduled a hearing, and would not return counsel’s phone calls seeking to schedule a hearing.

A similar case was made public by Signal in 2016, when a court in Virginia requested the release of user data and ordered that the request not be made public. Signal fought the non-publication order in court and eventually won.

Signal is a messenger app that is highly regarded among privacy experts like Edward Snowden. That’s because Signal has used end-to-end encryption by default from the start, doesn’t ask its users for personal information or store personal data on its servers and is open source. The messenger is therefore considered particularly secure and trustworthy. Moreover, no security vulnerabilities have become known so far, which is definitely the case with numerous competing products.

Since 2018, Signal is beeing operated by the non-profit organization Signal Technology Foundation and the Signal Messenger LLC. At that time, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, among others, joined the company and invested $50 million. Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike is also still on board.

The EU commission is planning a legislative package to fight the spread of child abuse on the Internet. The law will also include automated searches of the content of private and encrypted communications, for example via messenger apps. This would undermine the core functions of Signal in Europe. Critics call this form of preventive mass surveillance a threat to privacy, IT security, freedom of expression and democracy.

Data protection risks with regard to WhatsApp and Snapchat on business phones

6. June 2018

The use of the chat services WhatsApp and Snapchat on smartphones used for business purposes will in future be forbidden for employees of the automotive supplier Continental: For data protection reasons, the employer prohibits its employees from downloading the apps. This ban affects approximately 36,000 mobile phones worldwide.

The ban is based on the fact that social media services access users’ address books and thus personal (and possibly confidential) data. The messenger apps do not restrict access to personal data in their settings, so Continental consequently decided to ban the apps from service mobile phones to protect business partners and its own employees.

Under the current terms of use, users of WhatsApp agree to provide contact information “in accordance with applicable laws”. WhatsApp hereby shifts its data protection responsibility to its users, who in fact confirm that they have obtained a corresponding declaration of consent for data processing from every person in their address book. The social media service will be aware that this is practically impossible to guarantee.

In order to ensure an adequate level of data protection, the latter would therefore be obliged to design the default settings to conform to data protection requirements. Such a change could also have a positive effect on the company itself, considering that this would remove the breeding ground for the prohibition. WhatsApp could then be used on countless other smartphones.