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US, UK and Australia urge Facebook to create backdoor access to encrypted messages

<span>Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia plan to pressure Facebook to create a backdoor into its encrypted messaging apps that would allow governments to access the content of private communications, according to an open letter from top government officials to Mark Zuckerberg obtained by the Guardian.

The open letter, dated 4 October, is jointly signed by the UK home secretary, Priti Patel; the US attorney general, William Barr; the US acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan; and the Australian minister for home affairs, Peter Dutton, and is expected to be released Friday.

It will call on Facebook not to “proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens”.


Also on Friday, the US and UK announced the signing of a “world-first” data access agreement that will allow law enforcement agencies to demand certain data directly from the other country’s tech firms without going through their governments first. The agreement is designed to facilitate investigations related to terrorism, child abuse and exploitation, and other serious crimes.

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Prior to the agreement, requests for data from foreign technology companies were submitted to governments and frequently took between six months to two years. The new bilateral agreement is expected to speed this process significantly, to weeks or even days.

The draft open letter was first reported by BuzzFeed News. The governments’ request will reignite a longstanding debate over how to balance privacy with public safety.

Zuckerberg defended his decision to encrypt the company’s messaging services despite concerns about its impact on child exploitation and other criminal activity.

Zuckerberg, speaking Thursday in a livestreamed version of the company’s weekly internal Q&A session, said child exploitation risks weighed “most heavily” on him when he was making the decision and pledged steps to minimize harm.

Also on Thursday, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement: “We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”

What are Facebook’s planned changes?

Facebook’s messaging app WhatsApp already employs end-to-end encryption, shielding the content of its 1.5bn users’ messages from the company itself. In March 2019, Zuckerberg announced plans to integrate Facebook’s other messaging apps, Facebook Messenger and Instagram, with WhatsApp and incorporate end-to-end encryption across the entire service. Facebook’s move to expand the use of encryption followed a year in which the company came under global criticism for its failure to protect the data of its users, and it was branded as a pivot toward a “privacy-focused communications platform”.

Facebook has announced end-to-end encryption for all its messaging apps.
Facebook has announced end-to-end encryption for all its messaging apps. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

But law enforcement agencies have long looked askance at encrypted communications, which they argue protect criminals and terrorists while stymying investigators.

“Security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world,” the open letter reads. “We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity. Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”

The letter specifically focuses on the threat of child sexual exploitation and abuse, noting that Facebook’s combination of encrypted messaging and open profiles could provide “unique routes for prospective offenders to identify and groom our children”.

“In 2018, Facebook made 16.8 million reports to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) – more than 90% of the 18.4 million total reports that year,” the letter states. “NCMEC estimates that 70% of Facebook’s reporting – 12 million reports globally – would be lost [if Facebook implements encryption as planned].”

Privacy v public safety

The letter asserts that the governments “support strong encryption” while also demanding “a means for lawful access to the content of communications” – an apparent reference to a so-called “backdoor” into the encrypted communications.

Governments have often proposed such backdoors as a compromise measure, but security experts argue that it is impossible to provide limited access to encrypted communication without weakening privacy overall.

“We believe people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world,” the Facebook spokesperson said. “Ahead of our plans to bring more security and privacy to our messaging apps, we are consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies and devoting new teams and sophisticated technology so we can use all the information available to us to help keep people safe.”

The debate over encryption last flared up in 2016, when the FBI attempted to force Apple to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the killers in the San Bernardino, California, mass shooting. Advocates for civil liberties rallied around Apple against the US government, but the standoff fizzled out when the FBI broke into the phone by other means.

A rash of lynchings fueled by misinformation in India provided an illustration of one of the downsides of encrypted mass communications in 2018, as neither the government nor Facebook nor civil society groups were able to monitor the spread of the false rumors fueling violent mobs.

But privacy advocates pushed back on the idea that a government backdoor was needed to keep people safe.

“When a door opens for the United States, Australia, or Britain, it also opens for North Korea, Iran, and hackers that want to steal our information,” said Neema Singh Guliani, the senior legislative counsel for the ACLU. “Companies should resist these repeated attempts to weaken encryption that reliably protects consumers’ sensitive data from identity thieves, credit card fraud, and human rights abusers.”

“The UK, United States, and Australian authorities are once again falling into a false dichotomy between security and encryption,” said Guillermo Beltra, the policy director of the digital rights organization Access Now. “The reality is that encryption is an essential technology that strengthens the security of the internet’s infrastructure and enables users to enjoy their civil and political rights and express themselves freely.”

The whistleblower Edward Snowden criticized the governments’ request on Twitter, saying: “If Facebook agrees, it may be the largest overnight violation of privacy in history.”

Stephanie Kirchgaessner contributed reporting