The Home Secretary has warned that Facebook’s plan to end-to-end encrypt private messaging across its apps could put progress in preventing child sexual abuse “at jeopardy”.
At a virtual event hosted by the NSPCC on Monday, Priti Patel said the social network needs to “sharpen up their approach” and said all tech giants must “play their part by taking safety in a serious way”.
It comes as an NSPCC poll, conducted by YouGov, showed public support for end-to-end encryption would almost double if platforms could demonstrate children’s safety would not be compromised.
Major tech firms currently use a range of technology to identify child abuse images and detect grooming and sexual abuse in private messages.
But concerns have been raised that proposals to end-to-end encrypt Facebook Messenger and Instagram would render these tools useless.
WhatsApp, which Facebook also owns, is already end-to-end encrypted.
There are estimates that 70% of global child abuse reports could be lost, according to the NSPCC.
Ms Patel said that the scale of the threat and the numbers “are simply appalling at every single level”, citing the trading of image of children, including toddlers and babies, as well as child sexual abuse material going viral.
The Home Secretary said we must “push” tech firms to ensure that they “stand up and step up to take in every single preventative measure in place”, ensuring companies assess “what they do as a business in terms of selling, advertising, phones, online games, the type of harms that they themselves indirectly and directly they are responsible for”.
“Sadly at a time when we need to be taking more action – and I think the global pandemic alone has shown this with the hidden harms that have been taking place online – Facebook are still pursuing end-to-end encryption plans that place the good work and the progress that has already been made at jeopardy,” she explained.
“Offending is continuing and will continue, these images of children being abused just continue to proliferate, even right now while we are speaking, but the company intends to bind itself to this problem of end-to-end encryption which prevents all access to messaging content.
“My view is that this is simply not acceptable, we cannot allow a situation where law enforcement’s ability to tackle abhorrent criminal acts and protect victims is severely hampered.”
The NSPCC says there is currently too much emphasis on the investigation of abuse after it has already taken place, rather than focusing on the loss of platforms’ ability to detect and disrupt abuse earlier.
Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “Private messaging is the frontline of child sexual abuse but the current debate around end-to-end encryption risks leaving children unprotected where there is most harm.
“The public wants an end to rhetoric that heats up the issue but shines little light on a solution, so it’s in firms’ interests to find a fix that allows them to continue to use tech to disrupt abuse in an end-to-end encrypted world.”
The NSPCC survey found that 33% of UK adults support using end-to-end encryption on social media and messaging services, a figure which rose 62% if tech firms could ensure children’s safety was protected.
It also found that more than half (55%) of adults believe the ability to detect child abuse images is more important than the right to privacy.
Over 90% supported social networks and messaging services having the technical ability to detect child abuse images on their sites.
Some 91% supported a technical ability to detect adults sending sexual images to children on their services.
Sir Peter continued: “We need a coordinated response across society, but ultimately Government must be the guardrail that protects child users if tech companies choose to put them at risk with dangerous design choices.”
A Facebook spokesperson said: “Child exploitation has no place on our platforms and Facebook will continue to lead the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse.
“End-to-end encryption is already the leading security technology used by many services to keep people safe from hackers and criminals.
“Its full rollout on our messaging services is a long-term project and we are building strong safety measures into our plans.”