The government is in dispute with Facebook regarding private messages.

A stock photo of a 15-year-old looking at her phoneGetty Images

Meta, the owner of Facebook, has responded to a recent government campaign that strongly opposes its intentions to implement message encryption.

Enabling end-to-end encryption (e2ee) ensures that only the sender and intended receiver can access the messages.

The government claims that this conceals instances of child exploitation, abuse, and grooming.

Meta asserts that encryption serves as a safeguard against privacy infringement for users.

The company stated that they believe individuals do not desire for their private messages to be read by us.

It further stated that the majority of British individuals already depend on encryption-enabled apps to ensure their safety against hackers, fraudsters, and criminals.

It was mentioned that the past five years were dedicated to creating strong safety protocols in order to prevent, identify, and address any instances of abuse, all while ensuring online security.

“It stated that as we implement end-to-end encryption, we anticipate surpassing our peers in terms of the number of reports provided to law enforcement. This is attributed to our exceptional efforts in ensuring people’s safety.”

However, the proposed plans could result in numerous child abusers evading consequences, as stated by the home secretary of the United Kingdom.

Moral choices

In May, security minister Tom Tugendhat introduced the new campaign during a speech.

He accused Mark Zuckerberg of being responsible for the proposal, condemning what he referred to as the “remarkable ethical decision” to broaden encryption.

Meta – the American company of which Mr Zuckerberg is chief executive – has announced it will add e2ee to all Facebook messenger chats, by default, by the end of the year.

Meta currently possesses the encrypted messaging application WhatsApp. Encryption is also utilized by other platforms like Signal and Apple’s iMessage. These platforms have expressed concerns regarding certain provisions in the recently approved Online Safety Bill that could potentially compromise the privacy of encrypted messages.

In July, a letter was sent to Meta by the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, along with technology experts, law enforcement, survivors, and prominent child safety charities. The letter expressed their concerns.

However, she expressed on Wednesday that Meta has not given any guarantees regarding the safety of their platforms from disturbing abusers. It is necessary for them to establish suitable measures to accompany their intentions of implementing end-to-end encryption.

This is something Meta disputes. The BBC understands that the tech firm maintains it supplied that information in July. Much of the information it has is now published online.

Meta writes: “When e2ee is default, we will also use a variety of tools, including artificial intelligence, subject to applicable law, to proactively detect accounts engaged in malicious patterns of behavior instead of scanning private messages”.

It also sets measures the firm takes to protect children, such as restricting people over 19 from messaging teens who don’t follow them.

However, James Babbage, the director of general threats at the National Crime Agency (NCA), expressed concerns about the potential consequences of implementing end-to-end encryption on the platform. He believes that such a move would significantly hinder our ability to safeguard children.

“He stated that we are not requesting for fresh or supplementary law enforcement access; rather, we simply urge Meta to maintain its capability to collaborate with us in identifying and preventing abuse.”

The Home Office has partnered with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in their efforts to oppose the decision. Together, they aim to offer parents a helpful guide on ensuring their children’s safety in the event that Meta enforces end-to-end encryption.

It has also supported the production of a film against Meta’s plans, which includes testimony from a survivor of child sexual exploitation online.

According to the IWF, their data indicates that the occurrence of the most extreme types of online child sexual abuse has increased by over two times since 2020.

‘Magical thinking’

The recently passed Online Safety Bill grants Ofcom, the regulator, the authority to require companies to implement authorized technology that can help detect child sexual abuse content within encrypted messages.

Government officials claim that there is technology accessible that enables end-to-end encryption while also notifying authorities about instances of child sexual exploitation.

Many experts disagree and consider this belief to be “magical thinking”. They argue that enabling scanning for child abuse material would inevitably result in compromised privacy of encrypted messages.

Ciaran Martin, the former head of the National Cyber Security Centre, has previously told the BBC that scanning for child abuse content in encrypted messaging apps would involve processes that could undermine privacy for all users.

He stated that it involves creating a door that is not currently present, not within the encrypted messaging app, but within devices. This door could be utilized or exploited by individuals with malicious intentions, rather than those who have no interest in safeguarding children.

Related Topics

  • End-to-end encryption
  • Meta