“It’s a remarkable thing to think about."
WhatsApp could be banned in the UK, its head has warned.
Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp at parent company Meta, said the UK’s upcoming Online Safety Bill could force the app to weaken the end-to-end encryption that currently secures messages on the service.
If the government forces the company to weaken that security, WhatsApp will refuse, leaving open the possibility that the app would be banned in the UK.
End-to-end encryption secures messages by ensuring that only those sending and receiving them can read them. Even the services themselves do not have access.
Technology companies and security experts say it is necessary to protect messages from hacking and other threats.
However, officials have argued that it should be weakened so that messages can be scanned for illegal content.
Mr Cathcart expressed shock that the company would be forced into such a policy in the UK.
But he said that the upcoming legislation does not give proper confidence that the app would not be forced into weakening its own privacy.
He said: “It’s a remarkable thing to think about.
“The experience we’ve faced all around the world is that’s only happened in governments that were trying to crack down on their citizens’ ability to communicate freely.”
Mr Cathcart said that if the UK’s government were to push for such changes, it would “shape what other countries all around the world ask for on different topics, on different issues”.
“When a liberal democracy says, ‘Is it OK to scan everyone’s private communication for illegal content?’, that emboldens countries around the world that have very different definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing.”
Boris Johnson first introduced the Online Safety Bill and it is currently on its way through parliament.
It allows the government or regulator Ofcom to demand that apps scan messages for terrorist or child sexual abuse material, which would not be possible without weakening the encryption that currently protects all messages.
Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, the authorities already have the ability to demand that apps remove encryption.
But that encryption is still in place and Mr Cathcart confirmed that WhatsApp had not received a demand to remove it from the UK government.
Mr Cathcart said the upcoming Online Safety Bill includes other legal “grey areas” that could make it easier for regulators or the government to demand apps weaken encryption.
This has led to criticism.
WhatsApp stressed that it offers the same app globally and there is no way for it to comply with weakening encryption in the UK without doing the same elsewhere. It would not do that even if asked by the UK government.
Mr Cathcart said:
“I don’t know that people want to live in a world where to communicate privately to someone it has to be illegal.”
“I think a lot of people will. But I still think that’s a bad thing.”
To avoid such a situation, Mr Cathcart urged the UK government to add wording to the bill so that it would make clear private messaging is different from other social networks, and that encryption should be protected.
He said that the government has made public statements about the importance of such security, but that it should be explicitly written within that legislation.