Apple reportedly threatens to remove FaceTime and iMessage in UK over snooping row

Apple has reportedly warned the government that it will remove services such as FaceTime and iMessage from the UK if it were to pursue its proposed amendments to a 2016 Act.

The proposed changes by the UK government and Home Office under the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) 2016 would give the Home Office permission to demand security features of communication service providers to be disabled without notifying the public, i.e. secretly.

An eight-week consultation was opened by the government and is due to close at the end of this month with representations from public authorities, professional groups, interest groups, academia, and the wider public welcome to comment.

Under the proposed changes the government notes five objectives that it views as “overarching objectives” rather than specific amendments and states the consultation’s goal “is about the efficacy of long-standing powers” and not creating any new ones.

Apple has reportedly submitted a nine-page long paper opposing to three key parts:

  • having to notify the government of changes to its security features prior to their release,
  • the requirement for companies based outside the UK to comply with changes as that would affect their services globally (e.g. end-to-end-encryption),
  • any immediate actions when a notice is received from the Home Office before being able to review or appeal against them.

The company also has highlighted that some security feature changes would need to be done via software updates meaning the secrecy requirement by the government would simply not hold up. The proposed changes would also infringe on data security and information privacy of people outside the UK and constitute a direct and serious threat to those users.

These points alone perhaps give us a little insight into the level of technical understanding and technical insights sought by the relevant MPs when drafting their proposals.

Further, this news has come amid previous warnings in recent months from tech companies and their services, such as Whatsapp and Signal, which warned the UK government in an open letter over its online safety bill and the mass snooping attempts that would essentially end UK residents’ human rights to privacy and safety.

The letter from April 2023 states “[t]he Bill provides no explicit protection for encryption, and if implemented as written, could empower OFCOM to try to force the proactive scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services – nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users.”

While it is unclear how long the row could drag on for if appeal processes were followed, many may well expect that Apple won’t back from its threats. The company is one of the (few) tech giants that have continuously put emphasis on end user privacy and security so perhaps the government should take the warnings seriously and consider the consultation papers carefully. And not many will vote for a government that intrudes on people’s lives, especially one already losing its popularity over many other policies and acts.

Amid wider concerns over surveillance and privacy intrusion such as by AI and large language models, the UK government certainly isn’t doing itself any favours while elsewhere on the continent governments are working towards the protection of citizens from surveillance and such privacy breaches.


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