In a seminar organised by the European Data Protection Supervisor in October, more than 20 speakers voiced their opposition to a proposed EU legislative measure that would require messaging services to scan user communications for child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
The proposal aims to employ automatic, non-targeted surveillance to detect CSAM and grooming in real-time. Critics argue that this approach threatens democratic values and fundamental freedoms.
Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the European Data Protection Supervisor, said the proposal went beyond child protection concerns, questioning the foundations of privacy in a democratic society.
He warned that without amendments, the legislation could change the internet and digital communication, drawing on his personal experience of living under surveillance during the Communist regime in Poland.
The proposal, presented by the European Commission in May 2022, has faced mounting opposition over human rights concerns and perceived lack of engagement with civil society.
Legal experts at the seminar questioned the proportionality of the proposal, citing EU law that required any interference with fundamental rights to be necessary and proportionate.
Critics also raised concerns about the potential unintended consequences of the legislation, such as the risk of investigating and even criminalising minors engaged in consensual activities like sexting. The proposal relies on automated scanning tools, which may struggle to distinguish between actual CSAM and innocent content, leading to potential misinterpretations.
The seminar highlighted the immaturity of client-side scanning technology (meaning the scanning happens on your device and data is not sent over the internet), which the law would force onto end-to-end encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp.
Computer science researchers expressed the novelty of such technology and the challenges in ensuring confidentiality and avoiding exploitation.
The event underscored worries about mission creep, with indications that Europol aims to obtain unfiltered access to data obtained under the CSAM-scanning proposal. Critics called for amendments, including precision in detection order provisions, involvement of an independent judicial authority and proportionality tests to safeguard individual rights.
The proposal’s impact on professional secrecy, potential negative effects on children’s political participation, and the risk of turning personal devices into surveillance tools were also discussed. Lawmakers were urged to resist mandatory age verification and focus on making online services safe by design.
The seminar occurred before a hearing with Ylva Johansson, the commissioner for home affairs, who has faced criticism for lack of transparency and accountability. Critics accused lawmakers of exploiting the sensitive issue of child abuse to push for blanket surveillance, impacting the rights of millions.
In response to critics, Johansson suggested that civil society opposition might be influenced by Big Tech interests. The seminar concluded with calls for a of the detection order provisions and a focus on targeted investigations to prevent an existential threat to European values and democracy.
The stakes are high, with warnings that the proposed law could signal the end of confidential messaging and secure encryption, paving the way for unprecedented authoritarian methods in democracies.
James Browning is a freelance tech writer and music journalist.