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US, UK officials call on Facebook to slow down end-to-end encryption plans

Oct 04 2019 15:00
Daniel Stoller and Kurt Wagner

Facebook should stop its plans for end-to-end encryption in messaging applications until governments can ensure lawful access to user communications, according to a joint letter signed by US, UK and Australian justice officials.

US Attorney General William Barr and legal officials from the UK and Australia called on Facebook to take certain steps before it implements end-to-end encryption on their messaging products, according to the letter obtained by Bloomberg News.

The social media company should work with governments to “embed the safety of the public in system designs,” according to the letter signed by Barr, Acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, UK Secretary of State Priti Patel, and Australian Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton. BuzzFeed News reported earlier on the letter.

The officials argued that Facebook and other tech companies should “not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes,” according to the letter addressed to company Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg.

Encryption is a major issue for Facebook. The company is in the process of combining the technical infrastructure of its messaging apps so users can send messages across different Facebook properties, like WhatsApp and Instagram. The Menlo Park, California-based company also plans to encrypt messaging services during that process, which will mean that even the company can’t read user communications.

This would make it impossible for Facebook to hand over user messages to law enforcement, or proactively scan for dangerous or illegal activity, the company has said. Currently, only WhatsApp completely encrypts all user messages. Eventually, Facebook plans to do the same for Instagram and Messenger.

Facebook is “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,” a company representative said on Thursday. “End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”

Tech companies have fought with US government officials who want to lawfully access user communications when there are national security, terrorist, or other threats including child exploitation. Tech companies work with law enforcement to stymie these threats, but are still pushing for end-to-end encryption in their messaging applications.

Zuckerberg has said the decision to increase user privacy will have some serious trade-offs.

“We recognize it’s going to be harder to find all the different types of harmful content,” Zuckerberg said on a conference call with journalists earlier this year. “It’s not clear on a lot of these fronts that we’re going to be able to do as good of a job on identifying harmful content as we can today.”

Barr is also set to announce a data sharing pact with the UK. The UK-US Bilateral Data Access Agreement would help speed up international investigations and allow law enforcement authorities to request data directly from tech companies.

“This agreement will enhance the ability of the United States and the United Kingdom to fight serious crime - including terrorism, transnational organised crime, and child exploitation - by allowing more efficient and effective access to data needed for quick-moving investigations,” Barr said in a statement.

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