The head of MI5, Ken McCallum, has accused Facebook of giving a ‘free pass’ to terrorists and criminals with its plans to introduce end-to-end encryption into Messenger and Instagram.
In an interview with Times Radio, McCallum said that plans by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to add end-to-end encryption would hamper law-enforcement agencies’ ability to disrupt terrorist attacks and enable criminals to operate more freely, without being visible to security agencies.
“It is the case, especially around default encryption, that decisions taken in California boardrooms are every bit as relevant to our ability to do our jobs as decisions taken in Afghanistan or Syria,” he said.
McCallum tried to justify his argument. He proposed a scenario of security agencies receiving information that a person is making a bomb in a living room: in the physical world, they apply for a warrant from a senior judge and the Home Secretary to be able to access the property and find out whether a bomb is indeed being made or not.
“We need to have that ability online also,” he said.
“If you have end-to-end default encryption with absolutely no means of unwrapping that encryption, you are in effect giving those rare people – terrorists or people who are organising child sexual abuse online, some of the worst people in our society – a free pass where they know that nobody can see into what they are doing in those private living rooms.”
Facebook uses encryption technology in its WhatsApp messaging service but has plans to roll out the feature to other services, as well.
Security experts are concerned that introducing end-to-end encryption in Instagram and Facebook Messenger would make it difficult to identify child abuse images in private messages.
They warn that Facebook will no longer use algorithms to flag illegal content, and no person other than the sender and receiver will be able to view the messages.
Facebook, however, insists that end-to-end encryption is needed to keep users safe from malicious actors.
In a statement to The Times, the company stressed that it had measures in place to fight criminal activity and that it would continue to work with law-enforcement agencies.
‘We have no tolerance for terrorism or child exploitation on our platforms and are building strong safety measures into our plans, including using information like behavioural patterns and user reports to combat such abuse,’ the company said.
McCallum’s criticism of Facebook’s encryption plan comes about a month after Home Secretary Priti Patel urged the company to “take the safety of children as seriously” as it does the business of advertising on internet.
“Sadly, at a time when we need to be taking more action, Facebook are pursuing end-to-end encryption plans that place the good work and progress achieved so far [on fighting the issue of child abuse] in jeopardy,” Ms Patel said last month during an event organised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
The NSPCC warned in a report last month that 52 per cent of online child sex crimes in England and Wales were committed over Facebook-owned apps.
The Home Office also estimates that Facebook’s encryption plans will result in removal of about 12 million reports of child abuse to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children each year.
However, bodies like the Open Rights Group oppose the Home Office’s proposals, arguing that banning encryption is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
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