Meta faces renewed criticism over end-to-end encryption amid child safety fears

14 November 2023, 12:04

A child's hands on a laptop keyboard.
End to end encryption. Picture: PA

Child protection experts have spoken out against the plans they say would make it more difficult to detect abuse online.

Child protection experts have fiercely criticised social media giant Meta over its plans for end-to-end encryption, accusing the tech firm of prioritising profit over children’s safety.

Simon Bailey, a former police chief constable who was national lead for child protection at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, accused Meta of a “complete loss of social and moral responsibility” over the plans.

John Carr, who is secretary of a coalition of UK children’s charities to deal with internet safety, called the move “utterly unconscionable”.

Their comments came after head of the National Crime Agency Graeme Biggar said introducing end-to-end encryption on Facebook would be like “consciously turning a blind eye to child abuse”.

Graeme Biggar, Director General of the National Crime Agency.
Graeme Biggar, director-general of the National Crime Agency, has been critical of the move (Liam McBurney/PA)

Speaking at a lecture in Westminster earlier this month, the law enforcement chief said it should be up to the government rather than technology companies to draw the line between privacy and child safety.

Meta responded by saying it has robust measures in place to combat abuse and that it expects to make more reports to law enforcement after end-to-end encryption is brought in.

Mr Bailey said as he had seen the scale of online sexual abuse grow, he also saw “big tech companies, like Meta, absolve themselves of any responsibility when it comes to tackling online child sexual abuse”.

The former chief constable said: “Big tech facilitates and, through their algorithms, encourages this abuse to take place.

“In response to what they know and can see as a global pandemic of online child sexual abuse, they have consciously decided to take the easy way out of dealing with the problem.

“Meta, one of the largest carriers of this abuse, has decided to implement end-to-end encryption by default, and effectively stop law enforcement’s ability to identify and arrest offenders and, ultimately, to protect children.

“They are using the guise of privacy to justify their position and in doing so, are continuing to put profit before child protection. It is time their complete loss of social and moral responsibility is highlighted and challenged.”

Mr Carr, who is secretary of the UK Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety said: “If introduced without the appropriate safeguards that will allow law enforcement to detect and prevent online child sexual abuse, end-to-end encryption threatens to deny justice to huge numbers of children.

“Children are major user of social media. A great many use Meta’s platforms, including Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct.

A thumb over a mobile phone screen showing various social media apps.
Meta has said it has spent five years developing ‘robust’ measures to detect abuse while protecting users’ privacy (Yui Mok/PA)

“The design and nature of these platforms make them a perfect space for dangerous people to discover, befriend, groom and sexually abuse children – and if end-to-end encryption is introduced without appropriate safeguards, Meta will be willingly blinding itself to the abuse taking place online.

“Their plans are utterly unconscionable – particularly when there are tech solutions out there that enable end-to-end encryption to exist and child sexual abuse to be detected, reported, and justice to be served.

“Big tech companies, like Meta, must think again before introducing a blanket roll-out of end-to-end encryption across their platforms.

“If they don’t, thousands of children will be at risk, and we will fail to solve the growing problem of online child sexual abuse. Do better Meta – it’s time to prioritise child safety over profit.”

Rhiannon-Faye McDonald, head of advocacy at the Marie Collins Foundation, was herself sexually assaulted at the age of 13 after a predator contacted her online.

She said: “To say I am disappointed that Meta is continuing with their plans to roll out end-to-end encryption is an understatement. The measures they say will be in place – using metadata to identify patterns of behaviour rather than content – are not good enough.

“This move gives child sex abusers the ability to act undetected on its platforms as Meta will also lose the ability to use technology to detect and remove child sexual abuse images and videos.

“As a victim of child sexual abuse myself, where my abuse was documented and shared online by the perpetrator, I cannot emphasise enough the impact this has on me and other victims of this abuse.

“I am horrified that the images of my abuse could be infinitely reshared across the globe with no hope of them being blocked or taken down. How is this protecting my privacy?”

She said it is “incredibly worrying” that big tech companies “can unilaterally make decisions that limit our ability to protect children”.

A Meta spokesperson said: “The overwhelming majority of Brits already rely on apps that use encryption to keep them safe from hackers, fraudsters and criminals.

“We don’t think people want us reading their private messages so have spent the last five years developing robust safety measures to prevent, detect and combat abuse while maintaining online security.

“We recently published an updated report setting out these measures, such as restricting people over 19 from messaging teens who don’t follow them and using technology to identify and take action against malicious behaviour.

“As we roll out end-to-end encryption, we expect to continue providing more reports to law enforcement than our peers due to our industry-leading work on keeping people safe.”

By Press Association

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