Signal CEO Reaffirms Exit of UK if Ordered to Break Encryption Via Online Safety Bill

The CEO of encrypted chat service, Signal, has reaffirmed that they will leave the UK if they are asked to break their encryption.

Fallout from the UKs disastrous passage of the Online Safety Bill is continuing. The bill does a number of things including ordering companies to break their encryption so the government can access people’s personal communications. Other controversial aspects include the privacy busting age verification elements and the possibility of throwing people in jail for trolling.

Signal is an encrypted communications app people use for reliable secure messaging. It also happens to have a presence in that country. Earlier, Signal said that if they are ordered to compromise their encryption, they would rather leave the UK than betray their users. Recently, the CEO of the Signal Foundation has re-affirmed that commitment. From TechCrunch:

Onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2023, Meredith Whittaker, the president of the Signal Foundation, which maintains the nonprofit Signal messaging app, reaffirmed that Signal would leave the U.K. if the country’s recently passed Online Safety Bill forced Signal to build “backdoors” into its end-to-end encryption.

“We would leave the U.K. or any jurisdiction if it came down to the choice between backdooring our encryption and betraying the people who count on us for privacy, or leaving,” Whittaker said. “And that’s never not true.”

Ofcom could fine companies not in compliance up to £18 million ($22.28 million), or 10% of their global annual revenue, under the bill — whichever is greater.

Whittaker didn’t mince words in airing her fears about the Online Safety Bill’s implications.

“We’re not about political stunts, so we’re not going to just pick up our toys and go home to, like, show the bad U.K. they’re being mean,” she said. “We’re really worried about people in the U.K. who would live under a surveillance regime like the one that seems to be teased by the Home Office and others in the U.K.”

Whittaker noted that Signal takes a number of steps to ensure its users remain anonymous regardless of the laws and regulations in their particular country. Asked onstage what data Signal’s handed over in the instances that it’s received search warrants, Whittaker said that it’s been limited to the phone number registered to a Signal account and the last time a user accessed their account.

“We have no other data,” Whittaker said. “We have very, very little data, and that’s the only way to actually guarantee privacy. If you collect it, it can be breached, it can be subpoenaed … so we proceed on a very strict ethos that we want as little [data] as possible and we’ll go out of our way not to collect it.”

This is really turning out to be an interesting test for privacy focused companies that have a presence in the UK. Do they simply bend at the knee and allow the British government to rifle through people’s information or do they stand up for people’s personal privacy? For Signal, at least for now, the answer is the latter.

The picture is remarkably similar to what happened in Australia a few years ago. In 2018, the Australian government pushed their own anti-encryption laws. In response to the eventual passage, innovation and investment headed for the exits in that country. Computer science students were told to steer clear of encryption thanks to the law. Further, multinational corporations began blacklisting Australia thanks to those anti-encryption laws. Further, New Zealand expressed concerns about privacy following the ban on effective encryption. Perhaps the most troubling development was the fact that the Australian government used the anti-encryption laws to target journalists where properties ended up getting raided by authorities after.

From the sounds of things, a similar picture could be on the verge of playing out in the UK after the country passed its own version of the effective encryption ban law. As George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s starting to look like this is beginning to play out in the UK at this point.

(Via @OpenRightsGroup)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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