UK gov warns Facebook's encryption plan could harm child safety

Home secretary Priti Patel is set to deliver a speech on the dangerous effects of end-to-end encryption

Facebook’s plans to implement end-to-end encryption is likely to jeopardise the progress made in fighting online child abuse, according to Priti Patel.

The Home Secretary is set to deliver a speech on the dangerous effects of the technology this afternoon, in a roundtable event hosted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). According to the charity, 55% of UK adults believe the ability to detect child abuse images is more important than the right to privacy.

Patel is set to make a speech urging Facebook to do more to protect the safety of children, which make up 5.9% of the social media platform’s global user base. According to data from 2019, 69% of those aged 12 to 15 years reported using Facebook, with 62% of respondents using WhatsApp – Facebook’s only platform so far to have default end-to-end encryption. It is feared that the technology will hinder law enforcement efforts to track down and arrest child abusers.

"Sadly, at a time when we need to be taking more action, Facebook is pursuing end-to-end encryption plans that place the good work and progress achieved so far in jeopardy. The offending will continue, the images of children being abused will proliferate - but the company intends to blind itself to this problem through end-to-end encryption which prevents all access to messaging content,” Patel is expected to tell the event attendees.

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Late last year, it was reported that the UK government could force Facebook to opt for a weaker form of encryption to protect user messages, which would ultimately allow authorities to monitor conversations. 

However, the idea was condemned by privacy campaigners, with Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock saying that Patel's demands are an example of the Home Office's "notorious instincts to create a surveillance State and demand they can read everyone’s private messages all the time". 

"This is 2021, not 1984," added Killock. “Encryption is popular and growing because users want security and protection from fraud, scams and abuse of their data. The NSPCC’s position on end-to-end encryption messaging contrasts strongly with that of UNICEF – the United Nations agency involved in protecting children around the world – which has emphasised that end-to-end encryption provides benefits for children and adults privacy and free expression.”

"Although UNICEF states that 'end-to-end encryption of digital communication platforms appears to have significant drawbacks for the global effort to end the sexual abuse and exploitation of children', it also acknowledges that 'end-to-end encryption by default on Facebook Messenger and other digital communication platforms means that every single person, whether child or adult, will be provided with a technological shield against violations of their right to privacy and freedom of expression".

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