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Chat control: Final vote on EU regulation on blanket and indiscriminate searching of electronic messages

After a debate tonight, the European Parliament will vote tomorrow (6 July) on the Chat Control Regulation, which will allow e-mail and messaging providers to search private messages indiscriminately and in real time for suspicious content (“ePrivacy derogation”). Once the regulation is passed, all private communications, photos and videos can be searched using intransparent databases and error-prone artificial intelligence technologies. Although these algorithms are meant to search for potential child pornography and grooming, up to 86% of the correspondence reported to the police is not criminally relevant and users are falsely being incriminated – 30% of them minors.

Shadow rapporteur and civil liberties activist Patrick Breyer (Pirate Party, Greens/European Free Alliance Group) criticises:

“The post office opening and scanning all letters would be unthinkable – but this is exactly what is being proposed regarding our electronic correspondence. Because of the error-prone procedure, countless innocent citizens come under false suspicion of having committed a crime. Even nude pictures taken by minors (sexting) may fall into the wrong hands. Victims of sexual abuse will lose safe channels for confidential counselling and support.

This regulation delivers the death blow to digital privacy of correspondence, sets a devastating precedent for privatised mass surveillance and has only been made possible by disinformation and emotional blackmail campaigns by international actors. Unleashing such denunciation machines is ineffective, illegal and irresponsible.

Indiscriminate searches into the blue are the wrong approach to protecting children and even endangers them by disclosing their private nudes and frequently criminalising children themselves. Overworked criminal investigators are kept busy with sorting out thousands of criminally irrelevant messages. The victims of such a terrible crime as child sexual abuse have a right to measures that prevent abuse in the first place. The right and overdue way forward would be, for example, to increase undercover investigations into child porn rings and reduce the sometimes years-long backlog of processing search orders and evaluating data seized by police.”

The EU’s chat control regulation has been found to violate fundamental rights[1] by a former judge of the European Court of Justice. According to a representative poll[2], 72% of EU citizens clearly reject indiscriminate screening of private correspondence. Despite all that, the Parliament’s Committee for Civil Liberties (LIBE) recommends the plenary to vote in favour[3].

Chat control will initially be introduced as a voluntary measure by electronic communications service providers and is so far being applied to US services such as GMail, outlook.com and Facebook Messenger. For the summer of 2021, however, the European Commission has announced that it will present a legislative proposal for the mandatory application of chat control by all providers of email, messenger and chat services. This could also force previously securely encrypted messenger services such as WhatsApp or Signal to install backdoors.

Background

A victim of child sexual abuse, Alexander Hanff, criticises the plan because it deprives victims of channels for confidential counselling, therapy and help: “It will not prevent children from being abused, it will simply drive the abuse further underground, make it more and more difficult to discover it. It will ultimately lead to more children being abused.” [5] Last year it was revealed that US services such as GMail, Facebook Messenger and Outlook.com have been screening private messages for years, sending out thousands of criminal reports, though up to 86% of these falsely accuse innocent users of child pornography. Breyer filed a complaint with the Irish Data Protection Authority against Google and Facebook last year.

On Breyer’s homepage, citizens can inform themselves and protest against the planned regulation on chat control by sending a message to MEPs: www.chatcontrol.eu  

[1] https://www.patrick-breyer.de/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Legal-Opinion-Screening-for-child-pornography-2021-03-04.pdf  

[2] https://www.patrick-breyer.de/en/poll-72-of-citizens-oppose-eu-plans-to-search-all-private-messages-for-allegedly-illegal-material-and-report-to-the-police/     

[3] https://www.patrick-breyer.de/en/chat-control-home-affairs-committee-approves-regulation-on-indiscriminate-searching-of-private-communications/

[4] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/DE/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:52020PC0568&from=EN  

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-i-dont-support-privacy-invasive-measures-tackle-child-hanff   

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