Data Driven Futures

Joint call for Facebook to halt encryption

Written by Hannah McGrath

Home secretary Priti Patel has joined forces with the US and Australia to write an open letter to Facebook warning that encryption of messaging services across its social media platforms could put children at risk of abuse and prevent security forces from fighting terrorism.

The letter, which has been jointly written by US attorney general William Barr, Patel and officials from Australia, calls on Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, to postpone plans to introduce end-to-end encryption on messaging across the WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram platforms, until officials can establish its impact on public safety.

It requests that Facebook create a so-called ‘back door’, allowing law enforcement officials to access illegal content, such as grooming of children by sexual predators.

Facebook has come under fire previously amid fears that end-to-end encryption would effectively make communications on their platforms ‘warrant-proof’.

Currently, Facebook does comply with law enforcement requests to access messages and proactively files reports when it detects child abuse; with 16.8 million incidents flagged last year. The National Crime Agency reported that Facebook’s reporting to police resulted in 2,000 arrests last year.

The letter also argued that Facebook’s plan to integrate messaging across all three platforms could heighten the risk to vulnerable internet users.

“Risks to public safety from Facebook’s proposals are exacerbated in the context of a single platform that would combine inaccessible messaging services with open profiles, providing unique routes for prospective offenders to identify and groom our children,” the letter read.

The officials said they supported encryption of consumer data when it came to services such as banking, commerce and communications, however they insisted that “security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world”.

It added: “Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes. This puts our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims.”

In a livestreamed Q&A for Facebook staff yesterday evening, Zuckerberg acknowledged that child exploitation risks were considered when the encryption strategy was being developed.

"When we were deciding whether to go to end-to-end encryption across the different apps, this was one of the things that just weighed the most heavily on me," he said, acknowledging that loss of access to content of messages would leave those looking to crackdown on criminals with “at least one hand tied behind your back”.

But Zuckerberg said that he was optimistic that Facebook would be able to use existing tools to identify online predators through patterns of behaviour, similar to the methods used to detect online election interference.

The letter comes as the UK and US announced the first reciprocal data access agreement between two countries, allowing law enforcement bodies to request electronic data from suspects and criminals’ devices directly from tech firms based in either the UK or US.

Patel said: “Terrorists and paedophiles continue to exploit the internet to spread their messages of hate, plan attacks on our citizens and target the most vulnerable.

"As Home Secretary I am determined to do everything in my power to stop them."

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “Ahead of our plans to bring more security and privacy to our messaging apps, we are consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies and devoting new teams and sophisticated technology so we can use all the information available to us to help keep people safe."

They added: “End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. It is increasingly used across the communications industry and in many other important sectors of the economy. We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”