NEWS4 October 2019

Governments ask Facebook to halt encryption plans

Asia Pacific Legal News North America Privacy UK

UK, US & Australia – Ministers in the UK, US and Australia have written an open letter asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to pause its proposals to introduce encryption on the company’s messaging services.

Person holding phone with Facebook login screen

The letter, co-signed by UK home secretary Priti Patel, US attorney general William Barr, acting US homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan and Australia’s minister for home affairs Peter Dutton, asks the social network not to proceed with plans to encrypt unless it can ensure there is no reduction to user safety.

Encrypting messaging services puts people at risk because it impedes authorities’ ability to detect and investigate crimes such as child sexual exploitation and terrorism, the ministers argue.

“Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes,” the letter reads.

The letter calls for Facebook and other companies to develop ways of allowing law enforcement agencies to access content to “safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity”.

In March, Facebook announced plans to develop “a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform”, integrating Facebook Messenger and Instagram with WhatsApp and implementing encryption.

A Facebook company spokesperson said: “End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. It is increasingly used across the communications industry and in many other important sectors of the economy. We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.” 

Speaking in an internal Facebook Q&A session yesterday, Zuckerberg described the issue as one of the “core tensions” faced by the company and commented on the issue of child exploitation, saying: “When we were deciding to go to end-to-end encryption across the different apps, this is one of the things that weighed the most heavily on me.”

The open letter, a draft of which was first reported by BuzzFeed, was published as the UK and the US signed a data access agreement that will allow law enforcement to demand access to data from tech companies directly, without having to go through a country’s government.

The government said the agreement would speed up the process of obtaining information needed to tackle terrorism, organised crime and child exploitation.