Why Apple is tackling the Home Office’s new surveillance law Science and technology news
Apple has launched a vehement attack on government proposals that would force tech firms to coordinate new privacy features with the Home Office.
The iPhone Maker said the changes to the Investigatory Powers Act currently under discussion would pose a “serious and direct threat” to the security of user data.
In a nine-page submission Apple said it would rather strip the UK of key privacy protections on its services than stick with the plans.
But what exactly does this law do, what is it proposing now, and is Apple right in opposing it?
The Investigatory Powers Act came into force in 2016 has been dubbed the “snooper’s charter” by critics.
These included that security agencies and police could intercept suspicious communications and that the Home Office could force communications providers to remove encryption from communications or data.
Encryption protects messages from being seen by people outside of the conversation. It is used in popular messaging apps like Whatsapp and signal.
Proponents say it protects users from surveillance, theft and fraud; While critics say it helps criminals succeed.
The government argued that the bill would protect the UK from enemy threats and crack down on illegal activity.
A statement this week said the changes would help keep the law relevant as technology advances and “protect the public from criminals, child abusers and terrorists.”
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What changes are there?
Apple, which opposed the original bill, is particularly dissatisfied with three proposed changes.
It would force companies to let the Home Office know in advance what new security features they plan to add. Those who don’t approve of it would have to be deactivated immediately.
In another case, the Home Office’s power to force non-UK companies to comply with changes to security features they want would be expanded.
Apple says it would give Britain an “authority that no other country has” and stifle innovation.
The Home Office insists the law provides for “strong independent oversight” to regulate how the surveillance powers it gives authorities are used. Sky News previously announced the government never used the bill to instruct WhatsApp owner Meta to allow authorities to access encrypted messages, for example.
Apple says the changes undermine some of those protections and give the device more direct power home secretary.
dr Nathalie Moreno, data protection partner at Addleshaw Goddard, told Sky News that they “do not appear to be subject to the clear conditions or guard rails that would normally apply to the implementation of such reform”.
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Why is Apple so against it?
Apple has been a prominent opponent of efforts to give authorities access to user data, even in extreme cases.
After a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California in 2015, the company went to court against the FBI to prevent the killer’s iPhone from being broken into.
Since then, the company has made privacy an important part of its brand and even backed down itself plan to search people’s iCloud content for child sexual abuse material after a Backlash from customers and security professionals.
Internet Society director Robin Wilton said Apple’s recent intervention was designed for maximum impact.
It came a day after that Online Safety Lawthe government’s flagship cybersecurity legislation, which could force companies to scan messages for abusive content, made it through the House of Lords.
Mr Wilton told Sky News: “This is not only because of the proposed changes to this law, but also because of their perception of the UK Government’s overall policy direction.”
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Will Apple’s intervention have an impact?
Matthew Hodgson, chief executive of British messaging platform Element, whose clients include the UK MoD, hopes intervention by such a big company will quash the proposals.
Mr Hodgson said companies “don’t bluff” when they threaten to withdraw services from the UK over the government’s stance on encryption. WhatsApp and Signal have announced that they will withdraw when online security law forces them to allow message scanning.
He told Sky News that these “backdoors” could also allow bad actors to break into them.
“I’m glad Apple is taking a clear line — the idea of having to get government permission to add or change encryption on a product is terrifying,” he said.
“This strategy will only undermine our ability to provide secure communications because customers will not trust us if they believe political decisions must bypass government.”
The consultation will last eight weeks.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are constantly reviewing all legislation to ensure it is as effective as possible and this consultation is part of that process – no decisions have been made yet.”
Meanwhile, the online safety bill is due to be debated by MPs after the summer recess. His supporters include children’s charities, which call Private Messages the “frontline” of child sexual abuse.