by: Veit Irtenkauf
Should WhatsApp weaken its end-to-end encryption in the UK?
March 13, 2023
The UK Online Safety Bill is a new set of laws to protect children and adults online. Once passed, it will make social media companies more responsible for their users' safety on their platforms. This is a big challenge for companies that cannot decrypt and thus police content on their servers, such as end-to-end encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram.
Technically, checking content is doable. Since WhatsApp traffic is end-to-end encrypted, it would need to happen in the WhatsApp app on your phone before a message is sent, even if you are offline or in airplane mode. Today, AI-based photo editing software often sends out new AI models with each update; while these are hefty downloads, these models could be integrated into WhatsApp's mobile app. However, processing time and battery life would become an issue, esp. on low performing handsets, and that would impact usability. Who would want to wait for the app to perform a multi-minute scan of a 100MB movie before it can be sent?
The bigger challenge is on the business side. WhatsApp would be liable that its content checking works. In social environment you use content moderation teams, but here it would have to be done in the WhatsApp app in real-time by algorithms, which won't be anywhere near perfect. Even more problematic would be for WhatsApp to use regular content moderation. For that it needs to break the encryption on their servers, which they won't do since that is the key value proposition to many of its users.
Given this, it's understandable that WhatsApp would rather exit a market than weaken its encryption, esp. since the UK is not WhatsApp's biggest market. It will be interesting to watch what WhatsApp will do, if similar laws would be passed in the EU, Latin America or India, which are much larger markets for them.