End-to-end encryption debate draws attention to child sex abuse
10/16/2020 // Cassie B. // Views

Experts are deeply concerned about the effects of end-to-end encryption on public safety online, according to a recently published statement, and a shocking statistic is being used to support their position.

Facebook was responsible for a remarkable 94 percent of the 69 million images of child sex abuse that were reported by American tech firms last year. With the company planning to fully encrypt communications within its Messenger and Instagram Direct services, concerns are growing that it will become easier for people who abuse children to avoid detection. Facebooks’ WhatsApp service is already fully encrypted.

The social media platform has said that these changes are aimed at improving user privacy, which is certainly a big concern for many people. However, law enforcement agencies are warning that the move will make it far more difficult for them to go after pedophiles and protect children online.

Last year, technology firms in the U.S. made 16.9 million referrals to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), including 69 million images depicting children being abused in a 50 percent rise over the previous year, and most of them came from Facebook. Now, the UK’s National Crime Agency is warning that number could fall to zero once end-to-end encryption is in place across all Facebook properties.

NCA Director Robert Jones said: "The lights go out, the door gets slammed, and we lose all of that insight. It is as simple as that. "And nothing, you know we're relying on the best technical expertise... in the UK, the same people that keep the UK safe against terrorists, hostile states, cyber attacks, are telling us there is no viable alternative. I believe them. And I am deeply concerned."


Last year, the NCMEC received more than 86,000 UK-related referrals; 52 percent came from Facebook and 11 percent came from Instagram. Industry reporting resulted in the arrest of more than 4,500 offenders in the UK, Jones said, and around 6,000 children were safeguarded in the year up to June.

He added that the new end-to-end encryption model will put an end to one of the most effective ways for law enforcement to identify leads and safeguard victims.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was one of those who signed the statement, along with counterparts from the U.S., Canada, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. They said in their statement that they do not want tech companies to blind themselves to criminal behavior on their platforms.

The need for privacy

Of course, it’s a double-edged sword. Users appreciate encrypted messaging because it protects people’s personal conversations from getting into the hands of hackers and others with bad intentions. Even the platform holder, such as Facebook, is unable to view the messages that are being sent.

However, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he believes Facebook will still be able to identify some predators despite encryption using tools such as detecting unusual activity patterns and uncovering links between various accounts on different platforms.

The seven governments have asked for encryption backdoors to be placed in encrypted instant messaging applications and device encryption. Their statement called for tech companies to partner with governments to work public safety measures into their systems and enable law enforcement to access content as needed.

They added that end-to-end encryption also prevents the tech companies using it from identifying and responding to violations to their terms of service.

However, it is worth noting that one reason that Facebook makes up such a big proportion of these cases is that Facebook is one of the few tech companies that actively detects and reports these photos. There are a lot of reasons to detest Facebook, but few other tech companies are taking such a proactive stance against this sort of behavior.

No one wants to see child abusers get away with their horrific acts, but forcing law-abiding citizens to give up their privacy is not an ideal solution to this problem.

Sources for this article include:



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