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Carmichael questions Government’s role in online security measures

Alistair Carmichael MP

Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has questioned the Government’s role in privacy and security on apps like WhatsApp, during a debate on online safety in parliament this week. The ministerial statement came in advance of the Online Safety Bill, due to be published in 2021, which aims to enforce tougher regulation on harmful content online.

Speaking remotely in the House of Commons, Carmichael said: “The Secretary of State expects companies like Facebook to police content and behaviour on these apps, like WhatsApp. I don’t see how you do that without undermining the very idea of end-to-end encryption, which is frankly very important for people’s privacy and security. How is he going to do that without relying on technology that has not yet been invented?”

Responding for the Government, culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said: “The Rt Hon Gentleman makes an important point about privacy and if it was up to individuals within these companies to identify content on private channels, that would not be acceptable, that would be a clear breach of privacy.

“That is why we rely on technology and AI and so on to identify trends that can be used to spot this kind of thing, it’s very instructive, and I would urge him to go along to some of these companies and see some of the advances they’re making. In terms of end-to-end encryption, that takes a whole other level of challenge. The Home Secretary and I are actively engaging with Facebook to discourage them from using end-to-end encryption, unless they can put appropriate protections in place, and those conversations are going on.”

Following the exchange, Mr Carmichael said: “The Minister’s response implies that the Government sees privacy issues as a privilege bestowed or withdrawn by officials on a whim, rather than a fundamental right in a democratic society. This is deeply concerning.

“The suggestion that artificial intelligence is some kind of cure-all for the risk to privacy undermines the very purpose of encryption and seems to involve a misunderstanding of how data protection rules are supposed to work. For those using social media and messaging apps responsibly, end-to-end encryption guarantees privacy, and by extension, security.

“We must protect the right to privacy. Either the Government believes in these basic rights, or it does not. Unfortunately, the Minister’s statement today implied the latter.”