Facebook’s parent company Meta is heading into another political battle over the planned introduction of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) in its Messenger chat platform. The UK’s home secretary, Priti Patel, makes this clear in an op-ed for Tory mouthpiece The Telegraph this week, saying it would be a “grotesque betrayal” if the company didn’t consider issues of child safety while introducing E2EE. Similar arguments are likely to be raised in the US, too.
Meta has been working on adding E2EE to Messenger for years, and recently confirmed that it aims to encrypt all chats and calls on the platform next year. (It currently only offers E2EE on its other big chat platform, WhatsApp.) The move is reigniting decades-old debates in politics and tech about the right way to balance user privacy and safety. In the US, these arguments have been heightened by the potential for police to issues search warrants for user chats in order to enforce new abortion laws after the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
In the UK, arguments over encryption tend to focus on child safety and the dissemination of of child sexual abuse material, or CSAM. “A great many child predators use social media platforms such as Facebook to discover, target and sexually abuse children,” writes Patel in her op-ed. “It is vital that law enforcement have access to the information they need to identify the children in these images and safeguard them from vile predators.”
Patel references a recent whitepaper written by the technical heads of GCHQ and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which argues in favor of “client-side scanning” as a way to balance user privacy and the needs of law enforcement. This is the same method that Apple planned to introduce in Messages on iOS last year, before it scrapped the proposal after facing strong criticism. Essentially, client-side scanning compares photos and videos on users’ devices to a list of banned content. Privacy advocates argue that this list could easily be expanded to allow broad and intrusive surveillance on said devices.
Although Patel is clear that the UK government wants some carveouts from Meta over encryption, it’s not clear how politically tenable these demands are. The UK’s Conservative party planned to enforce compliance through its Online Safety Bill, a sweeping piece of legislation with the intention of making the UK “the safest place in the world to be online.” But the Bill has been put on hold — perhaps permanently — due to the resignation of Boris Johnson as party leader, while the Tories’ ongoing leadership battle means the government is without a clear agenda for the time being. The battle of encryption will absolutely continue, but in the UK at least, forces are not yet ready to take the field.
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