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Facebook Messenger’s encryption plans labelled a ‘disaster’ for child safety

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Facebook’s plans to encrypt its messenger service will be a “disaster” for child safety and law enforcement, a senior National Crime Agency (NCA) director has said.

In 2019, Facebook confirmed it was forging ahead with plans to bring end-to-end encryption (E2EE) to its Messenger platform, despite calls from governments that it will make it easier for criminals to communicate unhindered.

The social media firm already has the feature enabled on its WhatsApp platform, although that does not allow users to connect as easily with other people they don’t know, as it requires a phone number to engage contact.

Speaking at a virtual press conference (following the trial of a prolific paedophile), NCA director of threat leadership Rob Jones said Facebook’s encryption plans “are a disaster for child safety and law enforcement”.

Jones added: “Criminals will be drawn to Facebook, emboldened and confident it’s a place they can search for children to sexually abuse with complete impunity. Facebook Messenger is already strongly encrypted, enabling them to detect grooming and known abuse images while protecting privacy.”

Jones said it was the social network’s referrals that helped the NCA to jail the paedophile David Wilson, who approached more than 5,000 boys worldwide by pretending to be multiple teenage girls – principally on Facebook – and blackmailed some victims into abusing younger siblings or friends and sending him the footage.

The NCA launched its investigation into Wilson in 2017 after receiving crucial information from Facebook identifying 20 accounts of boys ranging from 12 to 15 years old, who had sent indecent images of themselves to an account seemingly belonging to a 13-year-old girl.

With regard to encryption, “it’s not too late for Facebook to change their mind,” Jones said.

While it has been nearly two years since Facebook announced it was bringing E2EE to Messenger, one of the firm’s engineers admitted in 2020 that the process was a Herculean technical challenge and remained years away.

“I’ll be honest right now and say we’re still in a place of having more questions than answers,” said Jon Millican, Facebook’s software engineer for Messenger privacy, in a New York talk in January last year.

“While we have made progress in the planning, it turns out that adding end-to-end encryption to an existing system is incredibly challenging and involves fundamentally rethinking almost everything.”

In December, the Children’s Commissioner for England warned in a report that millions of children in England are already using messaging platforms they are not old enough to be accessing and E2EE could increase their risk of exploitation.

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