Facebook has been accused of reverting to the “digital dark ages” after serious concerns were raised that plans for message encryption could prevent child abusers and terrorists being caught.
Politicians have called on the social media platform to think again before introducing end-to-end encryption for its messaging services, claiming the “right balance is not being struck” and changes could make the platform an “unsafe space”.
In a letter to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, the Home Secretary and her counterparts in the US and Australia outlined their fears that such a move could hinder law enforcement trying to investigate child abusers and terrorists operating online.
Priti Patel, along with US attorney general William Barr, acting US head of homeland security Kevin McAleenan and Australian minister for home affairs Peter Dutton, called on the company to work with governments to make sure any changes would not prevent police and other official bodies investigating crime.
They demanded end-to-end encryption, which means no-one apart from the sender and recipient can read or modify the messages, will not be introduced until assurances could be made that there will be “no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens.”
Ms Patel said: “So far nothing we have seen from Facebook reassures me that their plans for end-to-end encryption will not act as barrier to the identification and pursuit of criminals operating on their platforms.
“Companies cannot operate with impunity where lives and the safety of our children is at stake, and if Mr Zuckerberg really has a credible plan to protect Facebook’s more than two billion users it’s time he let us know what it is.”
Tony Stower, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online, said how Mr Zuckerberg chose to respond to the demand would be a “defining moment for him and for children”, adding: “Facebook’s encryption plans show that when it comes to tackling child abuse, they want to go back to the digital dark ages.
“It’s an absolute scandal that Facebook are actively choosing to provide offenders with a way to hide in the shadows on their platform, seamlessly able to target, groom and abuse children completely undetected.”
But Facebook said it “strongly” opposes “government attempts to build backdoors” because they would “undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere”.
The news comes as the UK and the US signed a “landmark” data access agreement – the first of its kind – to tackle criminals and terrorists online, the Home Office said.
The reciprocal arrangement means law enforcement bodies could demand terrorists’ and child abusers’ electronic data directly from technology companies based in either country.
Although Facebook’s encryption proposals could limit what law enforcement could access under the agreement.
The letter said the governments support “strong encryption” and were “committed” to work with the company on “reasonable proposals” which would mean users and the public were protected as well as their privacy.
But it stressed it was “critical to get this right for the future of the internet”, the letter said, adding: “Children’s safety and law enforcement’s ability to bring criminals to justice must not be the ultimate cost of Facebook taking forward these proposals.
“Unfortunately, Facebook has not committed to address our serious concerns about the impact its proposals could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens.
“Security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world.
“We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity.
“Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”
It said companies should not “deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content” particularly for preventing or investigating the “most serious crimes”, praising Facebook’s previous assistance.
In 2018, the company made 16.8 million reports to the US National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) – more than 90% of the 18.4 million total reports that year.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that, last year, NCMEC reporting from Facebook will have resulted in more than 2,500 arrests by UK law enforcement and almost 3,000 children safeguarded in the UK, the letter said.
The NCMEC estimates that 70% of Facebook’s reporting – 12 million reports globally – would be lost under the proposals, the letter said, adding: “This would significantly increase the risk of child sexual exploitation or other serious harms.”
There has also been criticism over how rules already in place have hindered investigations.
Delays in giving detectives access to predatory paedophile Stephen Nicholson’s Facebook account may have caused vital evidence to be lost after he murdered schoolgirl Lucy McHugh, according to prosecutors.
Rob Jones, director of threat leadership at the NCA, said the proposals could “place key information about what their users say and do out of the reach of law enforcement investigations.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey claimed Facebook would be “knowingly put the safety of children at risk” if their current plan is brought in, adding: “They have so far provided no reassurance that this change will not impede law enforcement and our ability to target offenders and safeguard children.
“They have a moral responsibility to ensure this does not happen.”
Internet Watch Foundation’s chief executive Susie Hargreaves said: “The internet is so woven into our lives that we cannot have a situation which dismisses crimes against children.
“If encryption doesn’t balance all these priorities, online sex offenders will be more able to trade and stockpile their images of sexually abused children, ordinary people could be more exposed to this imagery, and efforts to thwart and deter the offenders will be hampered.”
A Facebook spokeswoman added: “We believe people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world.
“We respect and support the role law enforcement has in keeping people safe.
“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.”