WhatsApp could soon be illegal in the UK, boss warns.

 The head of WhatsApp has issued a warning that it may be illegal in the UK.

Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp at parent company Meta, stated that the upcoming Online Safety Bill in the United Kingdom could force the app to weaken the end-to-end encryption that currently protects messages on the service.

He confirmed that WhatsApp would refuse to weaken that security if the government forced the company to do so, opening the door for the app to be completely banned in the country.

Messages are protected with end-to-end encryption by restricting access to only the parties sending and receiving them, as well as to the services themselves. Although officials, including those in the United Kingdom, have argued that it should be weakened so that messages can be scanned for illegal content, technology companies and security experts say it is necessary to protect messages from hacking and other threats.

Mr. Cathcart expressed surprise that the company would be required to implement such a policy in the United Kingdom. However, he asserted that the upcoming legislation lacks sufficient assurance that the app would not be forced to compromise its own privacy.

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He stated that it would "shape what other countries all over the world ask for on different topics, on different issues" if the UK government pushed for such changes.

When a liberal democracy asks, "Is it okay to scan everyone's private communication for illegal content?" that encourages nations with distinct definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing around the world.

Boris Johnson was the first to introduce the Online Safety Bill, which is currently moving through parliament. It makes it possible for the government or the regulator Ofcom to demand that apps scan messages for content about terrorism or child sexual abuse. This would be impossible without weakening the encryption that currently safeguards all messages.

Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, which companies like Apple explicitly opposed, authorities already have the authority to demand that apps remove encryption. However, that encryption is still in place, and Mr. Cathcart confirmed that the UK government had not requested that WhatsApp remove it.

However, Mr. Cathcart stated that the upcoming Online Safety Bill contains additional legal "grey areas" that could make it simpler for regulators or the government to demand that apps weaken encryption. That has drawn criticism not only from WhatsApp but also from Signal, a rival secure messaging app, which has stated that it "would absolutely, 100% walk" from the UK if it received a request like this.

WhatsApp emphasized that it provides the same app worldwide and that it cannot comply with weakening encryption in the United Kingdom without doing so elsewhere. Mr. Cathcart stated that even if the UK government asked, it would not do that.

He declined to speculate on the precise manner in which he anticipated any possible ban would occur. However, he mentioned countries like Iran, where the app has been blocked by the government, but users can still access it using virtual private networks and other technology that lets people get around restrictions.

Mr. Cathcart stated that even if that took place in the United Kingdom, it would still be problematic. He stated, "I don't know if people want to live in a world where it must be illegal to communicate privately with someone."

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Mr. Cathcart urged the UK government to add language to the bill to make it clear that private messaging is different from other social networks and that encryption should be protected to prevent this from happening. He stated that although the government has made public statements regarding the significance of such security, it should be explicitly incorporated into the legislation.

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