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129 signatories urge Facebook against end-to-end encryption citing child safety

Citing child safety online, 129 signatories across 102 countries have written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to resist introducing end-to-end encryption across Facebook’s messaging platforms. They argued that implementing end-to-end encryption would result in “more serious and sustained sexual abuse on Facebook’s virtual properties”. The Financial Times first reported this. We have reached out to Facebook for comment.

Who all signed the letter? The letter, dated February 6, 2020, has been signed by 129 signatories including non-profit organisations, think tanks and individuals. The effort was led by UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s. American professor Hany Farid, who specialises in analyzing digital images, and Australian academic Michael Salter are two of the signatories. Two Indian NGOs, Arpan and Tulir, also signed the letter.

Why did they write the letter? In March 2019, Facebook had announced that it would eventually introduce end-to-end encryption to all its messaging services. The signatories are not “satisfied” that their concerns about protecting children online have been sufficiently addressed. They are concerned that the integration of Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct would allow abusers to exploit the design and make “easy and frictionless contact” with large numbers of children.

What do they want? They want Facebook to take the following measures:

  • Halt the rollout of integration until Facebook proves that there would be “no net reduction” in child safety and proposed mitigations have been fully tested
  • Share data with governments and child protection experts to assess and access the impact of any changes
  • Embed voluntary duty of care to protect children

Has lack of encryption actually helped fight circulation of child sexual abuse material (CSAM)? As per the letter, yes. Facebook made 16.8 million of the 18.4 million reports to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) which led to more than 2,500 arrests in 2018 by British law enforcement agencies. These reports will be reduced by 12 million, or 70%, as per NCMEC estimates.

Private organisations aren’t the only ones against end-to-end encryption:

  • USA, UK and Australia are against end-to-end encryption: In October 2019, US Attorney General William Barr, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan, British Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Australian Home Minister Peter Dutton had written an open letter to Facebook asking Zuckerberg to not implement E2E encryption, or to build a backdoor to it for law enforcement agencies. They had cited the same NCMEC statistics as this open letter. In response, Facebook had said that it won’t build a backdoor to end-to-end encryption.
  • Rajya Sabha recommends breaking E2E encryption to protect children: This letter comes at the heels of a Rajya Sabha ad hoc committee’s recommendation that law enforcement agencies be allowed to break end-to-end encryption to trace distributors of child pornography.
  • Tamil Nadu government also wants decryption: The Tamil Nadu government told the Supreme Court that it wants a way to decrypt encrypted communications to nab criminals.

Facebook grapples with CSAM: As per a New York Times report on prevalence of child sexual abuse material online, 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of such material were from Messenger.

***Update (February 7, 2019 12:34 pm): The article was updated with a link to the full letter with more details about the signatories and what they want. The original article was published on February 6 at 12:23 pm.

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