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Euroviews. Commissioner Johannson's response to scientists' online privacy concerns goes after straw men

 A man takes a picture of the European flag at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, October 2012
A man takes a picture of the European flag at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, October 2012 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Prof Carmela Troncoso, SPRING Lab, and Prof Bart Preneel, COSIC
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The Commissioner's failure to answer the issues we raise shows she knows the European Commission’s regulation on Child Sexual Abuse Material cannot succeed. Instead, the post responds to statements we never made, Carmela Troncoso and Bart Preneel write.

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On 4 July, we released an open letter criticising the proposed European Commission regulation on the detection of Child Sexual Abuse Material, or CSAM. 

This letter was originally signed by more than 300 leading scientists from 32 countries; it now has more than 450 signatories. 

Last week, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson issued a response

This response fails to address the issues raised by the letter — instead, it attacks strawmen.

The technology is simply not there yet

The response points out that the proposal, naturally, does not impose a concrete technology. 

A specific technological solution will be needed to satisfy the regulation's requirements, however.

Yet, currently, no technology exists that can reliably detect new CSAM content or grooming. In addition, scientists believe that such a technology will not be feasible in decades to come.

AI-based detection techniques will always result in a huge number of false positives with major consequences for online services and for innocent citizens caught in this dragnet. 

In the arms race to develop such detection technologies, the bad guys will win: scientists have repeatedly shown that it is easy to evade detection and frame innocent citizens.
AP Photo/Olivier Matthys
Police secure the area after an incident in Strepy-Bracquenies, March 2022AP Photo/Olivier Matthys

In the arms race to develop such detection technologies, the bad guys will win: scientists have repeatedly shown that it is easy to evade detection and frame innocent citizens. Commissioner Johansson's response ignores this issue.

The response says that we call the detection of CSAM "a new situation". In doing so, the response ignores the fact that current detection technologies of known CSAM content only work because of the lack of end-to-end encryption in some services. 

Thus, the proposed regulation would indeed create a new situation in which service providers will have to either deactivate end-to-end encryption or activate mandatory client-side scanning. 

Either of these solutions would make society at large more vulnerable to organised crime and adversarial nation-states, severely harming security.

We're opening ourselves up to misuse

Commissioner’s Johansson response notes that scanning will be applied only to identify CSAM. 

But while we are willing to believe her good intentions, history is replete with examples where such authorities are inevitably extended.

It is clear that after approval of this proposal, law enforcement will ask to add the detection of terrorism and organised crime. 

Meanwhile, less democratic governments will immediately insist that the same technology be applied to detect content critical of their regimes.

The European Commission must take into account function creep and abuse both inside and outside the EU when it seeks to mandate such surveillance technologies — yet, so far, it has failed to do so.
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A surveillance camera sits on a utility pole in Moscow, May 2023AP Photo

For proportionality, the European Commission must take into account function creep and abuse both inside and outside the EU when it seeks to mandate such surveillance technologies — yet, so far, it has failed to do so.

Commissioner Johansson's response also falsely claims that our letter focuses only on the abuse of teenagers, overlooking the abuse of younger children. 

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This is not true, but our letter does point out that experimenting teenagers are at high risk of being caught as innocent bystanders in the CSAM detection dragnet that the Commission plans to roll out. Commissioner Johansson ignores this issue.

Illusory technologies are no replacement for hard work

Finally, the European Commission's response states that “providers must prevent child sexual abuse on their services”. 

Either the Commissioner does not understand how technology works, or she is making a claim she knows to be false.

Child sexual abuse happens in the real world; online services are used only to spread the material. 

We call for taking effective measures to prevent the abuse of children in the first place — a solution that requires hard work and investments in social services and a resilient society. 

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AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson speaks with the media at the European Council building in Brussels, March 2023AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Instead, the European Commission repeats its call for creating a regulation that posits illusory technologies which will instead be harmful to society — including the children we all want to protect.

Commissioner Johansson's failure to answer the issues we raise shows the Commissioner knows the European Commission’s regulation cannot succeed. Instead, the post responds to statements we never made.

It is time to put this resolution to bed.

Carmela Troncoso is an Associate Professor at EPFL and head of the SPRING Lab, and Bart Preneel is a Full Professor at the University of Leuven and head of the COSIC group.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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