Home Secretary Priti Patel has published an open letter to Facebook, co-signed with US Attorney General William Barr, Acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, outlining “serious concerns” with the company’s plans to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services.
Addressed to Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, the letter calls for a halt to the proposals unless the company can provide assurances that there will be no reduction in Facebook’s ability to keep its users safe and enable law enforcement access to content in exceptional circumstances in order to protect the public.
This issue is not just about one company. However, the letter makes clear particular concerns with Facebook’s plans and the impact they would have on efforts to tackle terrorism and online child sexual abuse.
Facebook’s proposals would put its own vital work keeping people safe at risk. In 2018, Facebook made 16.8 million reports of child sexual exploitation and abuse content to the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 12 million of which it’s estimated would be lost if the company pursues its plan to implement end-to-end encryption. The National Crime Agency estimates that these referrals from Facebook have led to more than 2,500 arrests in 2018, with almost 3,000 children safeguarded.
The Government is clear in its commitment to the right to privacy. It doesn’t believe the requirement to provide exceptional access to data where a warrant’s in place undermines this in any way.
Law enforcement and other agencies must, in certain circumstances, be able to access data with strong and independent authorisation and oversight.
The Home Secretary said: “Tech companies like Facebook have a responsibility to balance privacy with the safety of the public. So far, nothing we’ve seen from Facebook reassures me that the company’s plans for end-to-end encryption will not act as a barrier to the identification and pursuit of criminals operating on its platforms. Companies cannot operate with impunity where lives and the safety of our children is at stake. If Mr Zuckerberg really has a credible plan to protect Facebook’s more than two billion users then it’s time he let us know what it is.”
Responding to this news, chief constable Simon Bailey (the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection) said: “Technology advances have given criminals easy ways in which to target and groom children and vulnerable people online. That being so, quick access to their communications is vital. This evidence can help us secure prosecutions, but more importantly find victims and end their exploitation. I welcome this agreement, as will law enforcement colleagues around the country. In respect of Facebook, if its current policy for end-to-end encryption is implemented then the company will knowingly put the safety of children at risk. The company has thus far provided no reassurance that this change will not impede law enforcement and our ability to target offenders and safeguard children. Facebook has a moral responsibility to ensure this doesn’t happen.”
Also speaking in response to the Government’s statement, Silkie Carlo (director of Big Brother Watch) commented: “The proposal for a Government ‘back door’ to global encrypted communications is one of the most damaging of the information age. It’s an attack on our ability to have private conversations online. The authorities already have a raft of strong powers to read the communications of targeted suspects, but seeking back doors to Facebook platforms, which are used by the majority of the online world, would violate the privacy and security of over two billion people. The former heads of GCHQ and the National Security Agency have warned against this proposal as undermining encryption would gravely damage our security. The modern communications infrastructure would be left vulnerable to major hacks by hostile states, oppressive regimes, criminals and hackers. The consequences would be disastrous.”