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Encrypted messaging poses a danger, warns children’s commissioner 

Young girl sitting on a bed, looking at a smartphone and smiling

The children’s commissioner for England has warned that end-to-end encryption poses “significant risks” to young people on the back of a new report showing that most eight year olds use messaging apps supposedly restricted to those aged 13 and older. 

In the report, Anne Longfield called on tech giants including Facebook and Snap to shelve plans to introduce end-to-end encryption due to fears that it will prevent law enforcement investigating and prosecuting online child sexual abuse and other crimes.

“Given these real risks to children, we would expect that tech firms would be planning to do more, not less, to aggressively root out and prevent the proliferation of child abuse on their platforms,” Longfield writes. “However, the trend towards greater use of end-to-end encryption is just the latest sign that it is not enough for us to rely on technology companies to regulate themselves.” 

The report, Access Denied: How end-to-end encryption threatens children’s safety online, surveyed 2,003 children aged 8-17 on their use of messaging platforms. It found:

  • Nine out of ten children aged between 8-17 are using messenger services.
  • 60% of 8-year-olds and 90% of 12-year-olds reported using a messaging app with an age restriction of 13 or older.
  • Almost one in ten children report using a messaging service to talk to people they don’t already know.
  • One in six girls aged 14-17 reported having received something distressing from a stranger via a private message.
  • 1 in 20 children say they have shared videos or photos of themselves with strangers.
  • Over a third of 8-10-year-olds and over half of 11-13-year olds admit that they have said they were older than they were in order to sign up to an online messaging service. 

Among the recommendations in the report are that tech firms should have to meet four tests before rolling out any new design feature. 

  • Don’t apply end to end encryption to children’s accounts unless they are afforded the same level of protection as before.
  • Demonstrate how the platform will ensure child safety by design.
  • Have mechanisms in place to proactively monitor for child sexual exploitation.
  • Retain the ability to scan for child sexual abuse material. 

Longfield also called on the government to introduce legislation around its long-delayed Online Harms White Paper

“The onus is now on Government to follow through on its promise to make the UK ‘the safest place in the world to be online’,” she said. “18 months have now passed since the Online Harms White Paper was published and yet no legislation has been laid before Parliament and threats to children keep on growing. 

“Now is a historic moment to reinforce our safety net for children online in order to ensure that all children are properly protected, now and for years to come.”

Last month, the Home Secretary Priti Patel joined leaders from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and Japan in publishing an international statement calling for changes to tech firm policy regarding the encryption of content on their services.

Parent Zone backs these calls for greater consideration into the use of end-to-end encryption – especially given the impact it will have on children.

Parent Zone founder and CEO Vicki Shotbolt said, “The debate about end to end encryption is a complex one. 

“People value their privacy and we know that it can be vital for security. However, we need to see technology firms use their considerable skills to innovate to make sure that it doesn’t pose an increased risk to children. 

“We also need to ensure that the European Electronic Communications Code doesn’t result in tools used to scan for Child Sexual Abuse material becoming illegal, as is currently the case.”

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