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Facebook hits back at Home Secretary over encryption plans for Messenger

Facebook has written a letter addressed to Home Secretary Priti Patel in which it defends its decision to introduce end-to-end encryption (E2EE) to its Facebook Messenger service.

Patel has been calling for encrypted messaging platforms like Whatsapp to have backdoors, saying that it will help governments more easily tackle terrorism and child abuse.

In November, Facebook said that it would continue with plans to introduce E2EE to its Messenger service despite pressure from governments not to.

In its latest letter, which was also sent to the US’s Attorney General William Barr and Homeland Secretary Chad F Wolf, as well as Australian Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, the social network said:

“Every day, billions of people around the world use encrypted messages to stay in touch with their family and friends, run their small businesses, and advocate for important causes.

“In these messages they share private information that they only want the person they message to see. And it is the fact that these messages are encrypted that forms the first line of defence, as it keeps them safe from cyber attacks and protected from falling into the hands of criminals.”

It added that cyber-security experts have “repeatedly proven” that weakening encryption protocols will make the system more susceptible to hackers and that a backdoor would “be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes.”

The response comes after the NSPCC warned Facebook risks becoming a “one-stop grooming shop” if it presses ahead with the plans.

It found significantly fewer police instances of child abuse image and online child sexual offences on Facebook’s only end-to-end encrypted platform, WhatsApp, compared to the Facebook/Facebook Messenger and Instagram.

The social network said it is still happy to work with law enforcement if needed.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “This response fails to address the very serious points raised in the Home Secretary’s letter, particularly the grave threat their proposals pose to the safety of our children.

“Facebook has not addressed or mentioned reports from the US National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children that 12 million referrals of child sexual abuse would be lost annually if Facebook implemented end-to-end encryption as planned.

“The Government supports strong encryption but has been clear that Facebook’s end-to-end encryption plans put at risk the ability to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse including online grooming and the sharing of child sexual abuse material, terrorism and serious organised crime - something Facebook itself admits in this letter.”

Dr Martha Kirby, NSPCC policy manager for child safety online, added: “This letter deliberately sidesteps the legitimate concerns child safety experts and governments have about encryption.

“Facebook argues that they prioritise child safety, but they clearly don’t as they seem intent on pursuing their plans which we know could endanger young people.”

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