‘Disastrous for public safety’ – minister reignites rhetoric on tech firms’ encryption

Written by Sam Trendall on 31 March 2021 in News
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Home Office minister Atkins says Facebook is ‘of particular concern’

Credit: QuoteInspector/CC BY-ND 4.0

A Home Office minister has claimed that technology firms’ use of end-to-end encryption technology will “have a disastrous impact on public safety”.

Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins said that, while “the UK supports strong encryption”, it stands staunchly against any measures that “wholly preclude tech companies’ access to content”. This includes end-to-end encryption – which is designed to ensure that no-one other than the sender or recipient can read messages, with even the messaging platform in question blocked from access.

“As well as preventing law enforcement from securing lawfully authorised access to vital content as part of their investigations, it severely erodes tech companies’ ability to tackle the most serious illegal content on their platforms, including online child sexual exploitation and abuse,” she said. “All communication service providers must ensure that there will be no reduction to public safety when they implement new technology or other design choices.”

End-to-end encryption is already used in the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp, and the social media company plans to implement the technology across its Messenger service.


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“Facebook’s proposals are of particular concern due to the risk profile of the platform,” Atkins added. “In 2020 Facebook provided 20.3 million child sexual abuse referrals to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – the US body which processes industry reports of child sexual abuse. NCMEC’s previous assessment is that 70% of Facebook’s total referrals relate to Messenger and are therefore likely to be lost once that service is end-to-end encrypted.”

Atkins’ comments are the latest – and perhaps most stinging – in a series of ministerial criticisms of encryption technology going back several years. Current home secretary Priti Patel and her predecessor-but-one Amber Rudd have both spoken out against it in the past.

“The UK is leading work across the world urging all tech companies to collaborate with governments on mutually agreeable solutions that ensure user privacy is protected,” the safeguarding minister added.

Her comments came in response to a written parliamentary question from Democratic Unionist Party MP Carla Lockhart, who asked whether the government had discussed encryption with Facebook, Google, or other social media firms, and whether any such talks had prompted “an assessment of the potential effect of that encryption on child abuse online”.

“Ministers and officials have regular contact with technology companies, including Facebook and Google, about the safety of their platforms,” Atkins said.

 

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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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