Facebook plans to move ahead with strong encryption for all its messaging applications


Facebook said Tuesday it plans to move ahead with strong encryption for all its messaging applications, claiming that allowing law enforcement special access would end up being “a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes.”

The comments from the leading social network come weeks after officials from the US, Britain and Australia called on Facebook to allow authorities to circumvent encryption to better fight extremism, child pornography and other crimes.

“The ‘backdoor’ access you are demanding for law enforcement would be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes, creating a way for them to enter our systems and leaving every person on our platforms more vulnerable to real-life harm,” the heads of Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger, Will Cathcart and Stan Chudnovsky, said in a letter to officials from the three countries.

Critics have argued that new forms of encryption—which can make it impossible for anyone except the sender and recipient to see the contents of a message—are locking out law enforcement.

Facebook, which already uses “end-to-end” encryption on WhatsApp, said in the letter it intends to do the same across all its messaging services.

Jay Sullivan, the privacy product chief for Messenger, told a congressional hearing Tuesday Facebook was aware of its duty to work with law enforcement, pointing to the tech giant’s assistance in terrorism and child abuse cases.

Jay Sullivan, Facebook's product management director for privacy and integrity, defended the social network's use of strong encr
Jay Sullivan, Facebook’s product management director for privacy and integrity, defended the social network’s use of strong encryption at a Senate hearing

Rights activists back Facebook

Earlier Tuesday, more than 100 activist organizations, security experts and industry groups warned against efforts to force tech companies to weaken encryption.

“These exceptional access mechanisms for law enforcement agencies would be the same ‘back doors’ that provide an opportunity for terrorists, criminals, and other parties to gain unauthorized access,” said the letter endorsed by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

“Technologists cannot build systems that are inherently able to tell when ‘bad’ people use them, just as engineers cannot design sidewalks and highways to crumble underneath the feet of certain people.”

It said special access demands would “embolden repressive and authoritarian regimes in their attempts to pressure messaging apps and device manufacturers to build surveillance capabilities into their products and services.”

District Attorney Cyrus Vance of New York tells a congressional hearing encryption being used by big tech firms can make it impo
District Attorney Cyrus Vance of New York tells a congressional hearing encryption being used by big tech firms can make it impossible to get access to some evidence even with a warrant

Law enforcement hamstrung?

A joint letter in October signed by US Attorney General William Barr, British Home Secretary Priti Patel and Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton urged Facebook to give authorities the ability to circumvent encryption used in its messaging services.

The officials said strong encryption made it more difficult for law enforcement to detect terrorism and child pornography, and that a move to implement “end-to-end” encryption on its Messenger platform could make matters worse.

“Facebook has not committed to address our serious concerns about the impact its proposals could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens,” said the October letter.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance echoed those concerns, and argued that investigations were being crippled by the failure to get access to encrypted messages and smartphones, which cannot be accessed even with a warrant.

“Unintended or not, the reality remains that these tech titans are doing tremendous damage to our justice system, particularly justice at the local and state levels, by choosing to render themselves incapable of complying with a judge’s signed order,” Vance said.

Safety of children

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, said the company was looking at how to ensure the safety of children while pressing ahead with the move to encryption.

Facebook could look at user profiles and flag someone making a series of requests to minors they do not know, or people who are part of suspicious groups.

The company could also scan photographs for comments to flag patterns of bad behaviour.

Other alerts could include large age gaps between people communicating privately on Messenger or Instagram Direct Messages, frequency of messaging, and people that lots of users are blocking or deleting.

As part of its prevention efforts, the social media giant is also redesigning how it asks users to report inappropriate and illegal behaviour.

“We’ve been testing whether we can make reporting more accessible to people in the sensitive moments when they most need it such as when someone blocks a user or deletes a thread,” Ms Davis said.

Mr Zuckerberg has said the problems around child exploitation had given him pause when considering whether to switch messaging to full encryption.

Responding to a question in the company’s weekly question and answer session, he said he was “optimistic” that Facebook could use the tools it has developed to fight manipulation in elections, such as examining patterns of activity and links between accounts, to root out predators.

Tech companies have reported an explosion in online photos and videos of children being sexually abused, with 45m images flagged last year alone according to a New York Times investigation.

Facebook is drawing particular attention after the US Justice department said it had made more than 90 per cent of all reports to authorities.

In the UK, more than 2,500 arrests were made last year, according to the National Crime Agency, after Facebook reported offenders for trying to entice children into sharing indecent images or meeting in real life.

The debate over whether governments and law enforcement agencies should have access to encrypted messages is long-running.

In the past, politicians have mainly demanded a so-called “backdoor” to encryption on national security grounds, said Daniel Castro, vice-president at the non-profit think-tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington DC.

“That strategy has failed so we’ve seen a refocus in the last few months on protecting children. That argument they’re hoping will have more currency with the public,” he said.

“It will put more pressure on the platforms and they are going to have to demonstrate ways that law enforcement can be effective without undermining encryption.”


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