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Home secretary tells tech firms to put child safety first

By Giles Milton

The UK government and six other countries have demanded tech firms halt end-to-end encryption on their platforms – unless they can guarantee the safety of children against illegal activity, including child abuse images.

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.

The statement references a 2019 Global Threat assessment by WeProtect – the UK-led global alliance of 98 countries in combatting online child sexual abuse. That assessment reported that, “social media and communications platforms remain the most common methods for meeting and grooming children online”. It also reported that in 2018, Facebook Messenger was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of CSAM (child sexual abuse material).

It is claimed that end-to-end encryption effectively prevents law enforcement investigating and prosecuting the most serious crimes committed online, such as online child sexual abuse, grooming and terrorist content.

The statement calls on tech companies to enable law enforcement access to content where necessary and proportionate and to work with governments to facilitate this.

Priti Patel said, “We owe it to all of our citizens, especially our children, to ensure their safety by continuing to unmask sexual predators and terrorists operating online.

“It is essential that tech companies do not turn a blind eye to this problem and hamper their, as well as law enforcement’s, ability to tackle these sickening criminal acts.”

In May 2020, it was reported that the past two years had seen more than 10,000 cases of online grooming in the UK. But it is much harder to detect grooming or other online crimes on encrypted services, so there’s a very real fear that the number of unreported cases may be far higher.

The UK and its international partners stated that while they support strong encryption when not putting the public at a risk, preventing access to content also undermines the ability of companies to take action against illegal activity on their own platforms.

In October 2019, the Home Secretary wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to address the problems created by end-to-end encryption.

Patel added, “Our countries urge all tech companies to work with us to find a solution that puts the public’s safety first.”

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.

While Facebook plans to introduce encryption to its other services, the alarming amount of child sexual abuse materials found on Messenger – over two thirds of the reported cases in 2018 – shows that they must think carefully about the implications. The fact that we know about these cases is because Messenger is currently unencrypted and Facebook identifies and reports illegal activity on it. If that changes, it will be harder to detect or prosecute the activity. 

Parent Zone founder and CEO Vicki Shotbolt said, “Environments that offer end-to-end encryption put children at risk. They also mean that when children do seek help and the police pursue prosecutions, vital evidence is unavailable. That makes prosecutions less likely and victims less able to get justice.”

Image: Yura Fresh/Unsplash


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More than 10,000 online grooming cases reported in the past two years