Why do activists fear that Facebook’s encryption plans will reduce child safety online?

What is end-to-end encryption? Why is there opposition to it?

Published - February 16, 2020 12:05 am IST

The story so far: After Facebook announced end-to-end encryption for Facebook Messenger and Instagram, a coalition of child protection organisations and experts from all over the world, anchored by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, U.K., sent an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, expressing “significant concerns” about the company’s proposals. They were worried that this decision would reduce child safety online, because such a move will not allow the due process of monitoring for content that is not safe for children, including online grooming or uploading of child pornographic content. The petition said: “We urge you to recognise and accept that an increased risk of child abuse being facilitated on or by Facebook is not a reasonable trade-off to make.”

What is end-to-end encryption? Why is there opposition to it?

It is a system of locking messages wherein only those who are communicating can view them. Encryption kicks in the minute the message is sent, and only unravels for the intended recipient. No third party can decrypt the message, including platform administrators and law enforcement agencies. It can only be shared through screenshots. The advantage with this kind of encryption is that it ensures online privacy.

Last year, Mr. Zuckerberg revealed his intention to rejig the architecture to integrate three platforms: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. He also announced his intention to write in default end-to-end encryption.

Child safety activists are aghast as they believe that as far as child safety goes, this could well be a misstep. The U.K.-based John Carr, who has anchored the campaign against such encryption, is a leading authority on the use of the Internet by children and young people. He has summed up the primary opposition, on his blog, thus: “We are creating what are, for practical purposes, impregnable or unreachable spaces. These confer impunity on any and all manner of wrongdoing. Paedophiles and persons who wish to exchange child sex abuse material are permanently shielded, as are terrorists and an infinite variety of scam artists.”

“Limiting the ability of companies themselves to detect and prevent behaviour which contravenes their own terms of services is wrong and makes a mockery of the very idea of having terms of service in the first place,” he records.

The evidence on the field, activists claim, makes their case a persuasive one. Mr. Carr outlines data from a series of Freedom of Information requests made to the police in England and Wales involving “online grooming behaviour directed at a child, or the distribution of child sex abuse material on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.” From a total of 9,259 instances, over a year (2017-2018), police reported that 22% were on Instagram, 19% were on Facebook or Facebook Messenger, and 3% from WhatsApp. Since all three belong to one company that wants to encrypt everything, the petition takes on an urgent tone. Mr. Carr also clarifies: “We are not talking about Facebook’s main platform. Nothing will change there. So, yes, if an illegal image goes up, they will find it and delete it in minutes, maybe seconds… But, this is all about their Messaging services. So that’s Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct — where they are proposing to make themselves blind.”

In 2018, Facebook made 16.8 million reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), leading to 2,500 arrests and 3,000 children being safeguarded in the U.K alone. As per reports on online child sexual abuse imagery (CSAI) collated between 2008 and 2017 by the NCMEC, India tops the list of 10 nations where CSAI originated. A total of 38,80,235 cases were reported from India, the report said, but added that distortions might occur if virtual private networks (VPNs) or proxy servers were used.

The Rajya Sabha ad-hoc committee that went into the issue of pornography on social media and its effect on children has called specifically to permit breaking of end-to-end encryption to trace distributors of child pornography. It has also suggested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi take the lead in building a global alliance to combat child pornography on social media.

What are the key demands?

The signatories, including three Indian organisations (Tulir, Arpan and Equations), have urged that Facebook put the brakes on end-to-end encryption until it is able to satisfactorily demonstrate that there will be no reduction in children’s safety.

The petition says: “Strong encryption plays a hugely valuable role in keeping citizens and their data safe. We fully recognise that users of online services have a legitimate interest in ensuring their data is protected, and there seems to be a growing appetite for users to have greater control over how their data is used by tech companies... Facebook has a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to prevent the use of sites and services for sexual abuse, including grooming, the sharing of child abuse images, and children being coerced into sending self-generated images and videos.” In fact, Mr. Zuckerberg has himself recorded such concerns in a blogpost: “When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion. But we face an inherent trade-off because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.”

What’s the future?

The process of securing end-to-end encryption is not easy. Meanwhile, the coalition has also pledged its support to work with Facebook to embed safety mechanisms. Ultimately, the true test will be to pick that mode of encryption that will ensure privacy but address concerns of online safety too.

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