Daily Archives: 2023-02-27

Bugs still considered harmful

A number of governments are trying to mandate surveillance software in devices that support end-to-end encrypted chat; the EU’s CSA Regulation and the UK’s Online Safety bill being two prominent current examples. Colleagues and I wrote Bugs in Our Pockets in 2021 to point out what was likely to go wrong; GCHQ responded with arguments about child protection, which I countered in my paper Chat Control or Child Protection.

As lawmakers continue to discuss the policy, the latest round in the technical argument comes from the Rephrain project, which was tasked with evaluating five prototypes built with money from GCHQ and the Home Office. Their report may be worth a read.

One contender looks for known-bad photos and videos with software on both client and server, and is the only team with access to CSAM for training or testing (it has the IWF as a partner). However it has inadequate controls both against scope creep, and against false positives and malicious accusations.

Another is an E2EE communications tool with added profanity filter and image scanning, linked to age verification, with no safeguards except human moderation at the reporting server.

The other three contenders are nudity detectors with various combinations of age verification or detection, and of reporting to parents or service providers.

None of these prototypes comes close to meeting reasonable requirements for efficacy and privacy. So the project can be seen as empirical support for the argument we made in “Bugs”, namely that doing surveillance while respecting privacy is really hard.