Home Secretary uses ‘moral duty’ argument against end-to-end encryption

The UK government is continuing its criticism of end-to-end (e2e) encrypted messaging services, arguing that tech companies must “live up to their moral duty” to help prevent child sexual abuse online.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel will use a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) to urge tech companies to “take the safety of children as seriously as they do the business of selling advertising, phones and online games”.

The NSPCC takes the stance that there is now an “either/or” argument between adult privacy and child safety. NSPCC have released the results of a YouGov poll which suggest that support for e2e encryption – which prevents any party other than the sender and receiver reading messages – could double if platforms were able to prove child safety would not be compromised.

The survey also found extremely strong support for tech companies having the technology to detect child abuse images on their platforms (90 per cent) and to detect adults sending sexual images to children on their platforms (91 per cent).

Tech companies currently use a range of technologies, including image recognition, to identify child abuse images and detect grooming and sexual abuse in private messages. However, the NSPCC has raised concerns that Facebook’s proposals to expand e2e encryption to Facebook Messenger and Instagram would render these tools impotent. The NSPCC says that 70 per cent of global child abuse reports could be lost with these changes.

It argues there is too much emphasis placed on investigation of abuse after it has already taken place, rather than focus on the loss of companies’ ability to detect and prevent abuse.

Patel is expected to say: “Sadly at a time when we need to be taking more action, Facebook are pursuing [e2e] 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 [e2e] encryption which prevents all access to messaging content.”

“This is not acceptable. We cannot allow a situation where law enforcement’s ability to tackle abhorrent criminal acts and protect victims is severely hampered. Simply removing accounts from a platform is nowhere near enough.”

Sir Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, said: “Private messaging is the frontline of child sexual abuse but the current debate around [e2e] encryption risks leaving children unprotected where there is most harm. The public wants an end to rhetoric that heats up the issue but shines little light on a solution, so it’s in firms’ interests to find a fix that allows them to continue to use tech to disrupt abuse in an [e2e] world.”

“We need a coordinated response across society, but ultimately government must be the guardrail that protects child users if tech companies choose to put them at risk with dangerous design choices.”

Patel is also expected to call on Facebook to deepen their engagement with the government to embed the safety of the public in their system designs.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “Child exploitation has no place on our platforms and Facebook will continue to lead the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect, and respond to abuse. [e2e] encryption is already the leading security technology used by many services to keep people safe from hackers and criminals. Its full rollout is a long-term project and we are building strong safety measures into our plans.”

Privacy advocates have expressed concern that any attempt to weaken e2e encryption, such as by adding “backdoors” accessible by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, will come at the expense of the privacy and security of all users.  These purpose-built vulnerabilities could be exploited by any actor with sufficient technical ability, security experts have warned.

Recently, the NSPCC revealed the results of a study that showed more than half of the online child sex crimes in one year took place on Facebook-owned apps.

In a separate survey, the charity also showed that the vast majority of people support making tech firms legally responsible for preventing online child abuse. 90 per cent of respondents to the YouGov poll backed introducing tougher legal requirements on tech firms to detect crimes, such as grooming, happening on their platforms, with 78 per cent also in favour of prosecuting senior managers if a social media company consistently failed to protect children.

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