Meta risks a ‘grotesque betrayal’ of children by introducing encrypted messaging, says Priti Patel

Social media apps
Social media apps

Facebook’s parent company risks a “grotesque betrayal” of children by introducing encrypted messaging without safeguards against child abuse, Priti Patel says.

Writing in The Telegraph, the Home Secretary urges Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, to rethink its plans to roll out end-to-end encryption next year.

She fears the move will prevent police investigating child abuse.

It follows an announcement by the tech giant earlier this month that it will start testing encryption before making it the default system for all personal calls and messages on its three platforms next year. It is currently limited to WhatsApp messages.

Law enforcement and governments worldwide fear up to 14 million child abuse reports could be lost to them each year because the social media platforms will no longer be able to see or intercept suspicious encrypted content. The reports led to 6,000 arrests and 8,700 children in the UK being safeguarded.

In her first comments since Meta’s announcement, Ms Patel says that the Government wants to work with the tech giant to protect children, citing proposals by UK spy chiefs that would allow technology giants to scan online messages and pick up child abuse material without sacrificing privacy rights.

Keeping the pressure on Meta

She says: “A way forward can be found. It would be completely unacceptable – indeed a grotesque betrayal – for anyone to say this is all too difficult or that it doesn’t really matter. It matters enormously.”

Her comments will be seen as laying down a marker that even if she is not Home Secretary, she will expect her successor to keep the pressure on Meta over online child abuse amid concerns that online safety bill could be watered down under the new Tory administration.

Ms Patel says: “Parents need to know that their kids will be safe online. The consequences of inadequate protections – especially for end-to-end encrypted social media platforms – would be catastrophic.

“A great many child predators use social media platforms such as, Facebook, to discover, target, and sexually abuse children. These protections need to be in place before end-to-end encryption is rolled out around the world. Child safety must never be an afterthought.”

She says the GCHQ proposals showed scanning could “reduce the prevalence of child sexual abuse online while maintaining the privacy benefits of end-to-end encryption.”

She adds: “It is also reasonable to expect massive companies like Meta to invest some of their own resources and expertise into developing and testing workable solutions to this problem.”

Priti Patel says parents need to know that their kids will be safe online - Julian Simmonds
Priti Patel says parents need to know that their kids will be safe online – Julian Simmonds

AI is ‘not the answer’

Meta has argued that such technologies would undermine encryption and threaten people’s privacy. It says it is working on alternatives to “intrusive scanning” that would not only detect but prevent harm to children.

The experts from GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) have said that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, on which companies such as Meta rely to uncover abuse, is “not the answer.”

Ms Patel cites an amendment she introduced to the Online Safety Bill that will require Meta and other social media platforms to develop technology to identify, remove, and prevent child sexual abuse content onplatforms even if messaging and content is encrypted.

She warns that Ofcom would impose fines of £18 million or 10 per cent of a company’s turnover – whichever is greater – if they failed to mitigate risks to child safety by introducing the necessary technology.

Other methods to discover abuse material

In a paper published earlier this year by the Home Office, Dr Ian Levy, the NCSC’s technical director, and Crispin Robinson, GCHQ’s technical director for cryptanalysis, disclosed a series of methods through which abuse material could be discovered without breaking encryption.

Their proposal includes storing digital fingerprints of known abuse material on a user’s device, and having the device detect if any known material is sent or received. Another option is to use on-device artificial intelligence to scan for language in the text which could indicate a link to child sexual abuse.

They said using artificial intelligence or machine learning technology was insufficient to achieve a good standard of child abuse protection and that such methods, used by Meta, can have “limited effectiveness”.

Last year, Apple announced and then subsequently delayed a tool that would scan photos that a user attempted to upload to their iCloud library – as part of tackling child sexual abuse material – after backlash from some over potential privacy implications.

A spokesman for Meta said: “Experts are clear that technologies like those proposed in the [GCHQ/NCSC] paper would undermine end-to-end encryption and threaten people’s privacy, security and human rights.

“We have no tolerance for child exploitation on our platforms and are focused on solutions that do not require the intrusive scanning of people’s private conversations. We want to prevent harm from happening in the first place, not just detect it after the fact.”

Published by anthonyhayble

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