HomeInternationalThe EU's plans for the abolition of the secrecy of digital letters

The EU’s plans for the abolition of the secrecy of digital letters

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Surveillance of private chats without suspicion could soon become mandatory in the EU. This is revealed by a new leak.

To stop the spread of child pornography, the European Union is planning to introduce so-called chat control – automated and suspicionless mass surveillance of all private chat and email communications. In the summer, the Commission, the Parliament and the Council will negotiate on a draft law proposed by the EU Commission. While the majority of the Parliament is against the draft, the Council is likely to side with the Commission, as a new leak shows. But how does chat control actually work?

Anyone who sends family photos from a beach vacation runs the risk of having them land on the desk of a federal law enforcement officer on suspicion of child pornography. Popular American communication services such as Gmail, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger are already required by law to report illegal content such as child pornography or extreme violence. The operators do not just investigate specific cases of suspicion. Instead, they automatically search all uploaded content, such as the family photo from the beach mentioned above. And they do this with the help of algorithms that can detect children’s bare skin.

Any content that comes into the crosshairs of these algorithms is automatically forwarded to the private, nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the United States. If the sender or addressee is located in Switzerland, NCMEC forwards the content unprocessed to Fedpol. There, the reported content is dealt with for the first time. Fedpol receives about 10,000 such reports per year, but most of them are false alarms. According to Fedpol, only about 15 percent of the reports are criminally relevant. This means that the algorithms work with a relatively high error rate, without the people concerned ever realizing it.

The end is not the justification for the means

According to Fedpol, these reports are helpful in the fight against the spread of child pornography. However, privacy advocates such as the Swiss Digital Society question the proportionality of the operators’ approach, given the low hit rate. They argue that the practice is tantamount to private mass surveillance, placing all users under general suspicion without cause and violating the right to privacy. Once the necessary backdoors have been installed, the surveillance can be easily and unnoticed expanded at any time. For example, on government critics and political activists, or for espionage purposes.

What is standard in the US will now become mandatory in Europe. Already in May 2022, the EU Commission presented a draft law that would force services operating in Europe, such as the end-to-end encrypted Swiss messenger service Threema, to introduce a backdoor for automatic chat control. This is despite the fact that a survey conducted in March 2021 showed that 72% of respondents were strongly opposed to such surveillance.

Parliament votes against the draft law

In November 2023, the EU Parliament decided almost unanimously in a negotiating mandate to oppose the EU Commission’s draft in the trilogue negotiations scheduled for the summer. And to prevent the introduction of mass surveillance. MEPs want to limit surveillance to specific cases of suspicion and preserve end-to-end encryption.

This may prove difficult, however, as the EU Council, the third party in these negotiations, is also strongly in favor of chat control. This is evidenced by the latest proposal from the Belgian Council Presidency, which was leaked last week by the French news portal contexte.

The Council proposes that providers themselves assess the risk of criminals using their products. Only high-risk providers would be monitored. In addition, only adults with a known case of illegal content or two grooming attempts would be reported. Juveniles sending nude images would first receive a warning. Belgium is talking about a compromise proposal, although messengers like Signal or cloud services like iCloud would be required to monitor all of their users’ content without cause.

Ending the secrecy of digital mail

The proposal shows that the EU Commission’s original draft on chat control will remain essentially unchanged, warns Dr. Patrick Breyer, Pirate Party MEP and one of the most prominent opponents of chat control:

“As the Council’s legal service has confirmed, the latest move does nothing to change the nature of chat control. Millions of private chats and private photos of innocent citizens are to be searched using unreliable technology and then leaked without the people concerned even remotely being involved in child abuse – this destroys our digital privacy of correspondence”. According to Breyer, secure end-to-end encryption should be generally undermined in order to turn smartphones into spies.

Alternatives to online sexual exploitation

Instead, Breyer advocates alternative methods to protect young people from sexual exploitation online:

  • Security by design: Internet services and applications should be designed to be safer. It must be possible to block and report other users. Users should be asked before sending contact information or nude pictures.
  • Clean up the Internet: To clean up the Internet from child pornography and abuse images, the new EU Child Protection Center should proactively and automatically scan publicly available Internet content for known abuse images.
  • Duty to remove: Providers who become aware of clearly illegal material should be required to take it down. Law enforcement officials who become aware of illegal material should be required to report it to the provider for removal.

Chelsea Garcia is a political writer with a special interest in international relations and social issues. Events surrounding the war in Ukraine and the war in Israel are a major focus for political journalists. But as a former local reporter, she is also interested in national politics.

Chelsea Garcia studied media, communication and political science in Texas, USA, and learned the journalistic trade during an internship at a daily newspaper. In addition to her political writing, she is pursuing a master's degree in multimedia and writing at Texas.

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