Apple is reportedly threatening to shut down iMessage and FaceTime in the UK in response to plans to increase government surveillance powers.
Under planned changes to the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) 2016, messaging services will have to obtain approval for security features and be prepared to disable them when ordered to do so, immediately, and without informing the public. Currently, they are allowed to wait until after the application has been reviewed and any appeal heard.
Although end-to-end encryption is not specifically criminalized, companies will need to enable it to scan for child sexual abuse material (CSAM) when necessary, leading to serious concerns about user privacy and security.
“Secretaries of State who are democratically accountable within a statutory framework approved by Parliament, and under the supervision of the Judges and Parliament,” says home secretary Suella Braverman, “should make decisions regarding lawful access to data for national security or to combat serious crime.
“This decision-making capacity cannot be curtailed for commercial reasons that would have a detrimental effect on citizens.”
However, Apple has submitted an excoriating statement to the government slamming the plans, focusing in particular on the requirement for pre-clearance, extraterritoriality of the bill and the ability to block, in secret, the release of a product or service before independent supervisory bodies review an announcement.
“The new powers being sought by the Home Office – the increased authority to regulate foreign companies and the ability to pre-screen and block innovative security technologies – could significantly disrupt the global market for security technologies, putting users in the UK and around the world at greater risk,” he says.
“By requiring non-UK technology companies to have the ability to produce unencrypted data for all of their users around the world – without informing their users of that ability – the Authority would amount to a global gag order.”
And, pointedly, he says: “That is a big problem, especially considering that the legal systems of most nations treat free speech as an individual fundamental right.”
The company has told the BBC that if the plans go ahead, it could pull its encrypted messaging services from the whole of the UK.
As the UK moves towards more and more internet surveillance, through the Online Safety Bill as well as the Administration, a number of other companies have warned that they may reduce or remove services in the country.
WhatsApp and Signal have indicated they will withdraw their messaging services rather than weaken encryption, and Wikipedia has said it would also leave the UK if it were forced to scrutinize articles and perform age verification.
Apple has already made its objections to the Online Safety Bill clear – and these latest threats only escalate. With almost 20 million iPhone users in the UK—40% of the total number of smartphones—the company’s services are even higher than those of other contenders.
The government points out that its proposals are just that, and that no decision will be made until the eight-week consultation period has closed.
It may be a choice between him and the public furious at the loss of a basic service, given the growing lack of security and privacy in the UK.