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UK claims Facebook encryption plan poses ‘grave’ risk to public safety

By Richard Wheeler, PA Parliamentary Editor

Britain has stepped up its battle with Facebook by rejecting claims it wants a “backdoor” into planned encryption across the social media giant’s messaging apps.

Chloe Squires, national security director at the Home Office, warned the risks to public safety of any move to encryption which prevents law enforcement agencies from accessing material are “grave”.

She also suggested it would diminish Facebook’s ability to identify and tackle the “most serious illegal content and activity” running on its platform, including grooming, indecent imagery of children, terrorist propaganda and attack planning.

Ms Squires added Facebook transparency reports show it “acted against 26 million pieces of terrorist content” between October 2017 and March 2019, noting the company has not quantified how its efforts would be hampered by applying end-to-end encryption.

Her concerns were outlined in a 15-page letter to the United States Senate judiciary committee on the use of end-to-end encryption and its risks to public safety.

Facebook is considering end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct – on top of WhatsApp, which is already encrypted – meaning no-one apart from the sender and recipient can read or modify the messages.

In October, Home Secretary Priti Patel and her counterparts in the US and Australia wrote to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg expressing concerns that the move could prevent child abusers and terrorists being caught.

But in a response by two senior Facebook executives, the tech giant said it would be “simply impossible to create such a backdoor for one purpose and not expect others to try and open it”.

In her letter, Ms Squires said it was an “ill-defined and unhelpful analogy” to suggest the security agencies were seeking “backdoors” into the services of tech companies – and they were not wanting a solution which would “fundamentally change the trust relationship” between a service provider and those using it.

Ms Squires wrote: “Many companies strike a balance now without creating undue risks to the security of users’ data.

“That includes some of the largest tech companies in the world, running some of the largest and most popular messaging services.

“I am sure that those companies would strongly – and rightly – reject the notion that their services are somehow a hotbed for hackers or provide so-called ‘backdoors’, simply on the basis that their services aren’t currently designed with end-to-end encryption that precludes law enforcement access where necessary and proportionate.”

In her concluding remarks, Ms Squires also said: “Addressing the severe public safety threats that we face because of the use of end-to-end encryption is a matter of the utmost priority for the UK Government.

“It is vital that international governments and the tech industry work together to find technical solutions that balance effective law enforcement, effective cyber security and effective privacy.

“If we do not get this right then the impact on the safety of our citizens, and our children, will be stark.”

In a statement, Home Secretary Ms Patel said: “I have been very clear that companies should not go ahead with proposals to implement end-to-end encryption until they can ensure it won’t hamper their ability and that of law enforcement to detect and take action against some of the most vile content on the web, such as child sexual exploitation.

“This testimony lays out the UK Government’s position clearly, factually and dismantles the myths and misconceptions pedalled to prevent proper debate.”