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September 20, 2023

Suella Braverman clashes with Meta over end-to-end encryption

The home secretary believes greater use of encryption will make platforms a "haven' for sex offenders, and is calling for more safeguards.

By Claudia Glover

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman wants to “work constructively” with Meta over the company’s plans to introduce end-to-end-encrypted (E2EE) messaging in Instagram and Facebook by the end of the year, which she fears could create a “safe haven” for paedophiles and put children at risk. Meta says it will continue to share relevant information with law enforcement agencies and charities fighting child abuse.

Suella Braverman says Meta must do more to stop child abuse. (Photo by I T S/Shutterstock)

Braverman has written to the tech giant to express her concerns. The letter has been co-signed by a number of charities and technology experts and urges the company to provide more information on how it will keep users safe.

Speaking to Times Radio earlier today, Braverman said E2EE could lead to platforms becoming “safe havens for paedophiles”.

Urging parents to “take seriously the threat that Meta is posing to our children”, Braverman said: “Meta has failed to provide assurances that they will keep their platforms safe from sickening abusers.

“It must develop appropriate safeguards to sit alongside their plans for end-to-end encryption.”

Braverman said that, if necessary, the government will use powers granted to it by the new Online Safety Bill legislation, under which telecoms regulator Ofcom can compel tech companies to break E2EE and hand over information relating to potential abuse cases. It is currently unclear whether this is technically possible without building in back-door access to such systems, something that poses security and privacy risks, tech companies argue.

Meta said it has a “clear and thorough approach to safety”, that focuses on “sharing relevant information with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement agencies.

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“We don’t think people want us reading their private messages,” a Meta spokesperson said. “The overwhelming majority of Brits already rely on apps that use encryption to keep them safe from hackers, fraudsters and criminals.”

The National Crime Agency’s director of general threats, James Babbage, told the BBC that increased use of E2EE could “massively reduce our collective ability” to protect children.

“We are not asking for new or additional law enforcement access, we simply ask that Meta retains the ability to keep working with us to identify and help prevent abuse,” he said.

Online Safety Bill spurs encryption debate

Braverman’s intervention comes a day after the Online Safety Bill was given its final approval by parliament, and will now receive royal assent before becoming law.

Tech companies including Meta have criticised the threat the bill poses to E2EE, with WhatsApp even threatening to leave the UK when it becomes law.

Earlier this month the government appeared to make a partial climbdown, saying it would only use these powers as a “last resort” and when a technology is developed that allows information to be extracted in a secure manner.

Speaking to Tech Monitor in April, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he backed the legislation. “I think everyone wants to make sure their privacy is protected online, but people also want to know that law enforcement agencies are able to keep them safe and have reasonable ways to be able to do that, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the Online Safety Bill,” Sunak said.

Meta announced in August that it will be introducing E2EE on private messages on all its platforms by the end of the year. 

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