Home Secretary urges Meta to reconsider encryption plans that could put children at risk from online predators

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has urged Meta not to roll out end-to-end encryption on its platforms without robust safety measures that ensure children are protected from sexual abuse and exploitation in messaging channels.

Sep 21, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: IWF

Meta has publicly announced plans to roll out end-to-end encryption on its Instagram and Facebook Messenger apps “imminently”, which Ms Braverman says will put children across the UK at risk of being targeted and groomed online by predators.

Currently, 800 predators a month are arrested by UK law enforcement agencies and up to 1,200 children are safeguarded from child sexual abuse following information provided by social media companies.

The Home Secretary has warned that if Meta proceeds with its plans, it will “no longer be able to detect child abuse on its platforms as they currently do”, and the National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates 92 per cent of Facebook Messenger and 85 per cent of Instagram Direct referrals could be lost – meaning thousands of criminals a year could go undetected.

Now Ms Braverman, alongside the Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and Safeguarding Minister Sarah Dines, has called directly on Meta to urgently commit to installing safety measures on its platforms to “protect children from vile attackers”, or halt the planned rollout altogether.

It comes as the UK’s long-awaited Online Safety Bill that will set tougher standards for social media platforms to protect children passed its final Parliamentary debate this week and is now ready to become law.

Once the Bill receives Royal Assent and becomes law, social media platforms will be expected to remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place, including content promoting self-harm.

They will also be expected to prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content by enforcing age limits and age-checking measures.

If social media platforms do not comply with these rules, Ofcom could fine them up to £18 million or ten per cent of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest – meaning fines handed down to the biggest platforms could reach billions of pounds.

The Government says it is supportive of new technology, privacy and end-to-end encryption, but ministers are clear that encryption needs to be accompanied by safety measures that would enable the detection of grooming and child sexual abuse material.

Ms Braverman said: “The use of strong encryption for online users remains a vital part of our digital world and I support it, so does the Government, but it cannot come at a cost to our children’s safety.

“Meta has failed to provide assurances that they will keep their platforms safe from sickening abusers. They must develop appropriate safeguards to sit alongside their plans for end-to-end encryption.

“I have been clear time and time again, I am not willing to compromise on child safety.

“We all have a responsibility to do what we can to tackle this devastating crime, and I urge them to work with the government.

Mr Tugendhat said while the UK is “proudly pro-privacy, pro-innovation and pro-security”, it also committed to protecting children online and “ruthlessly pursuing those who seek to harm them”.

“Our law enforcement agencies are working day and night to crack down on child sexual abusers,” he said.

“The efforts of tech companies are crucial to their success. They have great influence over our lives, and with that power comes the responsibility to work with us to tackle this despicable abuse.”

Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), said it was “vital we do not give criminals and abusers anywhere to hide”.

“We’ve seen the proliferation of this imagery accelerate in recent years,” she said. “Knowingly switching off the lights on detecting child sexual abuse, and leaving whole spaces free for abusers to exploit would be a dangerous step.

“We’ve always been of the view that advances in technology must not mean taking a backwards step for child safety. The tech exists now to prevent the sharing of child sexual abuse imagery without impacting on user privacy.

“We urge companies looking to introduce end-to-end encryption to their services to think carefully about the impact on younger, vulnerable users, and to build in the safety features we’d expect in other areas of lives.

“They have shown what can be done to make their platforms safer and more user friendly, and it’s time to extend this to preventing the global spread of child sexual abuse.”

The Home Secretary outlined her concerns to Meta in a letter co-signed by technology experts, law enforcement, survivors and leading child safety charities in July 2023.

In it, she emphasised that the Government is supportive of end-to-end encryption, but not without safety measures that would enable the detection of grooming and child sexual abuse material.

She also made specific requests for detailed evidence of how they would maintain vital child safety protections in messaging channels under end-to-end encryption.

However, Ms Braverman said the company was “unable to provide this evidence”, and as a resultshe is concerned that robust child safety measures are not in place under the proposed plans.

Implementing end-to-end encryption on messaging apps means that messages would be seen only by the sender and receiver. Ms Braverman says this will mean that the company will no longer be able to prevent child sexual abuse occurring in those channels – “providing sick predators with a safe space to groom and target children together”.

Meta has previously set a leading example on child safety within the technology industry, ensuring that critical evidence of these crimes is provided to law enforcement agencies through the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The Home Secretary is urging Meta to put its innovative and technological prowess into developing innovations which allow for the detection of child sexual abuse material in encrypted environments, thus maintaining the utmost privacy for users, while maintaining vital safeguards for vulnerable children.

The Government, technology experts and wider industry partners have already demonstrated that it is possible to develop this technology through the Safety Tech Challenge Fund, which resulted in the development of five proof of concept tools of this nature.

Home Office data shows there were almost 34,485 offences relating to online indecent images of children in the year ending December 2022, an increase of 13 per cent from last year.

Meanwhile, the NCA estimates there are up to 830,000 people in the UK who could pose a sexual threat to children, either through online or in-person abuse.

NCA director of General Threats, James Babbage, said: “For many years, Meta have supported law enforcement by referring instances of child sexual abuse to NCMEC in the US. As a direct result of these referrals, we are able to safeguard children and arrest offenders.

“However, if Meta implements end-to-end encryption as planned, it will make their platforms less safe for children and massively reduce our collective ability to protect them.

“We are not asking for new or additional law enforcement access, we simply ask that Meta retains the ability to keep working with us to identify and help prevent abuse. This collaboration remains absolutely vital.”

Recent data from the IWF shows the fastest-growing age group appearing in online child sexual abuse imagery is seven to ten-year-olds while the prevalence of the most severe forms of online child sexual abuse has more than doubled since 2020.

It found there are more than 400,000 searches for online child sexual abuse material every month in the UK.

Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “We hear from Childline and survivors how offenders actively move children they have targeted on open platforms to end-to-end encrypted services to groom and ultimately abuse them.

“Victims say this amounts to their privacy and safety rights being eroded.

“Our polling shows the UK public overwhelmingly support measures to tackle child abuse in end-to-end encrypted environments.

“Tech firms should be showing industry leadership by listening to the public and investing in technology that protects both the safety and privacy rights of all users.”

In partnership with the IWF, the Home Office has published a guide for parents to advise them how best to keep their children safe if Meta does implement end-to-end encryption on the messaging service of Facebook and Instagram without appropriate child safety measures.

In addition, a new film features testimony of a survivor of child sexual exploitation online, Rhiannon-Faye McDonald, who makes a personal appeal to Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg to act and prevent more children from suffering from the abuse she endured online.

It also hears from child safety experts John Carr, secretary of the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, and Simon Bailey, director of the Child Rescue Coalition and former chief constable and National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection.

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