A government-backed campaign has stepped up the pressure on plans by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Messenger and Instagram apps to introduce end-to-end encryption, warning that millions of cases of child sex abuse could go undetected.
The new campaign warns that social media companies are “willingly blindfolding” themselves to abuse if they implement end-to-end encryption for private messaging.
Although the No Place to Hide campaign does not refer directly to plans for end-to-end encryption on Messenger and Instagram, they were strongly criticised by the home secretary, Priti Patel, last year, who described them as “not acceptable”. The campaign has been launched by abuse survivors, child safety campaigners and charities including Barnardo’s and is funded by the Home Office.
Safety campaigners warn that strongly encrypted messaging prevents law enforcement, and tech platforms providing the services, from seeing messages by ensuring that only the sender and recipient can view their content – a process known as end-to-end encryption. The new campaign calls on tech bosses to make a public commitment that they will not offer end-to-end encryption until they ensure any changes do not make it easier for child sex abusers to commit crimes.
Rhiannon-Faye McDonald, an abuse survivor and subject matter expert at the Marie Collins Foundation, which supports victims of online child sexual abuse and is part of the steering group for the campaign, said: “When people say this is about privacy, I couldn’t agree more. I have a right to privacy as a survivor of child sexual abuse. My abuse was recorded with photos and videos which may be out there now, as I speak. We want an assurance that E2EE [end-to-end encryption] will not enable and make it easier for child sex abusers to harm children either directly by finding and grooming them, or indirectly by circulating child sexual abuse material.”
Meta, the owner of Messenger and Instagram, announced in November that it would delay its plans and would finish global delivery of end-to-end encryption “sometime in 2023”. Meta already uses end-to-end encryption on its WhatsApp messaging service and had been planning to extend that to messaging on Messenger and Instagram in 2022. It has already encrypted voice and video calls on Messenger.
The No Place to Hide campaign refers to 2020 data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a US-based organisation, which showed that Meta’s platforms accounted for 20.3m referrals of child sexual abuse material – 94% of the total in that year. According to NCMEC, 70% of referrals by Meta platforms could be lost under end-to-end encryption, the equivalent of 14m reports.
Responding to the new campaign, the global head of safety at Meta, Antigone Davis, said the “overwhelming majority of Brits” rely on end-to-end encryption to protect them from fraudsters, hackers and criminals.
“We agree on the need for strong safety measures that work with encryption and are building these into our plans. We’re focused on preventing harm by banning suspicious profiles, restricting adults from messaging children they’re not connected with and defaulting under-18s to private or ‘friends only’ accounts. We’re also encouraging people to report harmful messages to us so we can see the contents, respond swiftly and make referrals to the authorities.”