Big Tech encrypted messaging risks greater child exploitation

Plans by tech giants for more encrypted messaging risks greater child exploitation and abuse, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

A report by commissioner Anne Longfield warns that the privacy of direct messaging platforms can conceal some of the most serious crimes against children, including grooming, exploitation, and the sharing of child sexual abuse material.

The study comes following announcements by Facebook, alongside indications by other platforms, that they plan to apply end-to-end encryption to all their messaging services.

WhatsApp is already encrypted end-to-end, while Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook have all made public their plans to do the same.

An investigation by the NSPCC found that Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were used in child abuse images and online child sexual offences an average of 11 times a day last year.

The rate of grooming offences committed in the UK appears to have further accelerated this year, with 1,220 offences recorded in just the first three months of lockdown.

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp accounted for 51 per cent of these reports, while Snapchat was responsible for a further 20 per cent.

“This report reveals the extent to which online messaging is a part of the daily lives of the vast majority of children from the age of 8,” said Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England. “It shows how vigilant parents need to be but also how the tech giants are failing to regulate themselves and so are failing to keep children safe.

“The widespread use of end-to-end encryption could put more children at risk of grooming and exploitation and hamper the efforts of those who want to keep children safe.

“It has now been 18 months since the Government published its Online Harms White Paper and yet little has happened since, while the threat to children’s safety increases.

“It’s time for the Government to show it hasn’t lost its nerve and that it is prepared to stand up to the powerful internet giants, who are such a big part in our children’s lives. Ministers can show they mean business by promising to introduce legislation in 2021 and getting on with the job of protecting children from online harms.”

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