EU plan to tackle child sexual abuse online raises privacy concerns

Politicians have long wrestled with tech giants over the potential abuse of encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and iMessage.

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The European Union on Wednesday unveiled tough new proposals that would require online platforms to more aggressively investigate and crack down on child abuse online.

The proposed legislation would allow EU countries to go to court to require companies like Facebook parent company Meta and Apple to implement systems that can detect child sexual abuse content on their platforms.

A new EU Child Sexual Abuse Center will be set up to enforce the measures. The Watchdog will maintain a database of digital “indicators” of child sexual abuse material. These indicators would be compared with content from relevant online services. It’s similar to a system Apple proposed last year.

The bloc says it is introducing the proposals as voluntary action by tech giants is not enough at this time.

“We are not able to protect children today,” said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson at a press conference on Wednesday.

She called the plan a “groundbreaking proposal” that would make Europe a global leader in the fight against child sexual abuse online.

It comes after the EU last month agreed landmark rules obliging tech companies to remove hate speech and other illegal content from their platforms more quickly.

Data Protection “Disaster”

Privacy campaigners fear the new EU law could undermine end-to-end encryption, which scrambles messages so only the intended recipient can see them.

The proposal is “incompatible with end-to-end encryption and with fundamental privacy rights,” said Joe Mullin, senior policy analyst at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“There is no way to do what the EU proposal intends to do other than for governments to read and scan user messages on a large scale,” Mullin said. “If it becomes law, the proposal would be a disaster for user privacy, not just in the EU, but globally.”

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have long wrestled with tech giants over the potential abuse of encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and iMessage. Several governments are calling for so-called “backdoors” that would allow them to bypass privacy controls.

“We look forward to working with the EU to inform the legislative process on how we keep children safe both offline and online,” a Meta spokesperson told CNBC.

“It is important that no action taken undermines the end-to-end encryption that protects the security and privacy of billions of people, including children.”

“technology neutral”

While Brussels said the proposed obligations were “technology-neutral”, it warned that the consequences for children would be “serious” if end-to-end encryption were left out of the requirements.

The US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that with end-to-end encryption, more than half of its reports of child abuse will disappear and abuse will go undetected.

However, privacy activists believe that measures to hollow out encrypted communications would be ineffective.

“Criminals are already using distribution channels that would not be affected by these scans and will easily evade scans in the future,” Linus Neumann of the German hacker collective Chaos Computer Club told CNBC.

However, supporters of the bill say it is a necessary step towards eradicating child abuse online.

The Brave Movement, an organization campaigning for child safety, said the laws would “ensure the safety of children, young people and future generations”.

“In the EU, digital spaces are sometimes completely unregulated – children face the threat of appalling sexual violence and exploitation,” said Wibke Müller, co-founder of the Brave movement, in a statement.

Mueller, a child sexual abuse survivor, said technology companies already have “the tools to detect and remove online sexual violence materials” and should “priority child safety above all else.” EU plan to tackle child sexual abuse online raises privacy concerns

Chrissy Callahan

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