The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has criticised a government-backed campaign against the rollout of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) feature in messaging apps by social media firms, warning that delaying its introduction will put “everyone at risk” including children.
The No Place to Hide campaign, which is backed by the Home Office, warns that social media sites are “willfully blindfolding” themselves to child sexual abuse by adding E2EE feature on messaging services.
It claims that about 14 million reports of suspected online child abuse could be lost each year if E2EE goes ahead on popular messaging apps.
The campaign urges Facebook and other sites not to add encryption until they have technology in place to ensure that children will not be put at greater risk as a result.
The campaign wants social media companies to show that introduction of strong encryption will not make it easier for child sex abusers to groom children; make, share or view sexual images of children; and avoid detection by law enforcement agencies.
“We are not opposed to end-to-end encryption, as long as it is implemented in a way that does not put children at risk. We are in favour of both strong privacy and children’s safety and urge social media companies to protect both,” the webpage of No Place to Hide campaign states.
The government has reportedly allocated about £534,000 for the campaign, which is being run by advertising agency M&C Saatchi.
The ICO, which oversees the safety of people’s data in the UK, differs from the government on the issue of encryption, and believes that E2EE is one of the most trustworthy ways of protecting the privacy of people who use big messaging platforms.
“The discussion on end-to-end encryption use is too unbalanced to make a wise and informed choice,” Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s executive director for innovation and technology, told BBC News.
“There is too much focus on the costs without also weighing up the significant benefits,” he added.
According to Bonner, the E2EE technology can help keep children safe online by not allowing abusers to send them unsafe content or access their location or pictures.
Facebook-owner Meta already uses encryption technology in its WhatsApp messaging service. The company had also revealed plans to incorporate the feature into Facebook Messenger and Instagram in 2022, but was forced to delay the plan until 2023, following warnings that feature could shield child abusers from detection.
Child safety campaigners have long warned that introducing E2EE in Facebook Messenger and Instagram would make it difficult to identify child abuse images in private messages as Facebook would no longer use algorithms to flag illegal content, and no person other than the sender and receiver would be able to view the messages.
In April, Home Secretary Priti Patel urged Facebook to “take the safety of children as seriously” as it does the business of advertising on the internet. She warned that Facebook’s plan to roll out end-to-end encryption across all its messaging platforms could jeopardise the ongoing work to combat child abuse.
In September, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said that tech companies’ focus on E2EE technology was making it harder – if not impossible – to identify and stop terrorists.
Bonner, however, says that accessing encrypted content is not the only way to catch abusers and criminals.
“Law enforcers have other methods such as listening to reports of those targeted, infiltrating the groups planning these offences, using evidence from convicted abusers and their systems to identify other offenders,” he noted.
The data watchdog says the government should continue to maximise use of law enforcement techniques rather than seeking to weaken encryption.
“Until we look properly at the consequences, it is hard to see any case for reconsidering the use of E2EE,” Bonner said.