Much criticism of Brussels’ plans to oblige companies to detect child pornography

Chat services like WhatsApp may soon need to monitor the conversations their users have in order to detect child pornography and report it to the authorities. It can at least be the result of a proposal that the Swedish EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson (Home Affairs) presented on Wednesday afternoon at a press conference in Brussels. Both the European Parliament and the EU Member States have yet to vote on the controversial plan.

The plan, which has been underway for years, is to help combat the distribution of child pornography and thus the abuse behind it. According to figures quoted by Johansson on Wednesday, reports of child pornography on the Internet have risen sharply in recent years. By 2021 alone, 85 million photos and videos would have been discovered worldwide. But because these reports only come from five companies that are already voluntarily discovering child pornography, it is almost certainly a significant underestimation. “The number of reviews is growing and the age of the victims is getting lower,” Johansson said. According to estimates by the Council of Europe, every fifth child will experience some form of sexual abuse.

Moreover, many victims are reminded of this over and over again because images continue to circulate online. Johansson addressed these victims directly on Wednesday, who “know that photos and videos of the most horrific moments in their lives are constantly being shared online.” “You should not relive that nightmare over and over again.”

Child porn or care

According to the Commission’s plan, ISPs will soon have to make an inventory of the extent to which their platform may be misused to distribute child pornography or care (luring minors online with sexual intentions) and developing plans to address this risk. The authorities of the Member States must assess these plans and may have the platforms impose a “detection obligation”, “for example through a court”. The platforms must then actively monitor whether users distribute child pornography or engage in grooming, and report this to the authorities. A new European agency to be set up, which will work closely with Europol’s police force, should help technological platforms in all this.

The proposal has been heavily criticized by privacy activists, security experts and digital civil rights organizations, 35 of which already spoke out against the plans in an open letter to the European Commission in March. Their main objections: unintentional mass surveillance affects the right to privacy, and the introduction of backdoors to view encrypted messages poses a risk to the security of this technology.

Also read: Apple to detect child pornography

The signatories, including the Dutch organizations Bits of Freedom and Vrijschrift, point to the Pegasus affair, which revealed that politicians, human rights activists and journalists around the world were intercepted using Israeli espionage software, presumably by authoritarian regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia. , Azerbaijan. , India and Hungary.

For although Johansson’s proposal does not prescribe the technology to be used, according to her critics, there is no way to introduce mandatory detection of child pornography or digital grooming without breaking the encryption of communication.

End-to-end encrypted

Rejo Zenger of the Dutch digital civil rights organization Bits of Freedom, who sounded the alarm earlier this week amid a leaked version of the proposals, was not reassured by Wednesday’s presentation. “In fact, the European Commission is banning communication confidentiality. The essence is precisely that a message that end to end is only encrypted by the sender and the recipient can be read. The moment you install snoop software on a phone, you undermine that principle. “He calls the fact that the Commission does not explicitly prescribe breach of encryption as ‘strategically smart’.” The Commission can say: we do nothing with encryption. But in fact, she tells companies on the Internet: do the impossible, and find out for yourself how. ”

“I think everyone agrees that the fight against sexual assault is very important, and almost everyone agrees that confidentiality in communication is also very important,” Zenger says. He is in favor of other measures to tackle online child abuse. “Think about streamlining cross-border criminal investigations. We know from the police that it takes a lot of effort to exchange data, for example if child pornography is in a neighboring country. host† In the Netherlands, we have a huge backlog with the deputy squad, which requires some of the capacity. And we know that most of the world’s child pornography is hosted in Europe. I think you can do something about that without jeopardizing the communication secret. ”

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