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UK: 'Spy clause' in Online Safety Bill could lead to mass surveillance

UK Online Safety Bill enters final stages in House of Lords tomorrow (6 Sept)

Clause 122 gives Ofcom powers to require messaging service providers to deploy software to scan phones for prohibited content

‘Encryption is a crucial enabler of the rights to privacy and freedom of expression’ - Rasha Abdul Rahim

Ahead of the UK Online Safety Bill entering its final stages in the House of Lords tomorrow (6 September), which could see a so-called “spy clause” signed into law later this year, Rasha Abdul Rahim, Director of Amnesty Tech, said:

“Clause 122, known as the ‘spy clause’, could see the private sector being mandated to carry out mass surveillance of private digital communications.

“It would leave everybody in the UK - including human rights organisations and activists - vulnerable to malicious hacking attacks and targeted surveillance campaigns. It also sets a dangerous precedent.

"It is not possible to create a technological system that can scan the contents of private electronic communication while preserving the right to privacy.

“Encryption is a crucial enabler of the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and also has a significant impact on other human rights.

“UK lawmakers must urgently address Clause 122 and ensure the Online Safety Bill upholds the right to privacy before it is signed into law.”

Covert surveillance

The Online Safety Bill is expected to become law later this year. The Government claims the bill’s aim is to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online” by introducing requirements for how large technology firms design, operate and moderate their platforms. However, Clause 122 - which was added in September last year - permits the scanning of private messages and empowers the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom) to issue notices to providers of messaging services, requiring them to develop and deploy software that will scan phones for prohibited content.

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