FACEBOOK has been accused of reverting to the ‘digital dark ages’.after serious concerns were raised that plans for message encryption could prevent paedophiles and terrorists being caught.
Politicians have called on the social media platform to think again before introducing end-to-end encryption for its messaging services, claiming the ‘right balance is not being struck’ and changes could make the platform an ‘unsafe space’.
Justifying the move, Facebook said it ‘strongly’ opposed ‘government attempts to build backdoors’ because they would ‘undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere’.
But in a letter to the company’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, the British home secretary Priti Patel and her counterparts in the US and Australia outlined their fears that such a move could hinder law enforcement trying to investigate child abusers and terrorists operating online.
Ms Patel, along with US attorney general William Barr, acting US head of homeland security Kevin McAleenan and Australian minister for home affairs Peter Dutton, called on the company to work with governments to make sure any changes would not prevent police and other official bodies investigating crime.
They demanded end-to-end encryption, which means no-one apart from the sender and recipient can read or modify the messages, will not be introduced until assurances could be made that there will be ‘no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens’.
Ms Patel said: ‘So far nothing we have seen from Facebook reassures me that their plans for end-to-end encryption will not act as barrier to the identification and pursuit of criminals operating on their platforms.
‘Companies cannot operate with impunity where lives and the safety of our children is at stake, and if Mr Zuckerberg really has a credible plan to protect Facebook's more than two billion users it's time he let us know what it is.’
However, online security experts have hit back over the concerns and defended Facebook saying the move may only have a ‘marginal impact’ on cyber crime.
Raj Muttukrishnan, professor of Security Engineering at City University, said end-to-end encryption will ‘make life difficult for enforcement but at the end of the day it doesn't mean that criminals can't find other routes to encrypted messaging’.
He pointed out that messaging platform Telegram, where messages are heavily encrypted and can self-destruct, is already used as a means of private communication.
Moreover, his work into social media and extremism has shown that Facebook is for the most part used socially or as a platform to spread propaganda or radicalise. He argued that his research has shown it is not a place where terrorists often communicate, often choosing platforms such as Telegram instead.
Mark Ryan, professor of computer security Birmingham University, thinks the government's attempts to curb encryption on Facebook infringes on the public's rights to privacy.
‘If you ban encryption you're essentially saying, 'Lets have mass surveillance as anyone's messages can be looked at regardless of whether they're a suspected criminal or not',’ he said. ‘Should we allow the police and other agencies to have full access to our communication just on the grounds that a minority of people abuse it?
‘Undoubtedly encryption can be harmful but for most people it isn't; it's just a way of communicating with one another – and that's a good thing.’
However, Tony Stower, the NSPCC's head of child safety online, said how Mr Zuckerberg choses to respond to the demand would be a ‘defining moment for him and for children’, adding: ‘Facebook's encryption plans show that when it comes to tackling child abuse, they want to go back to the digital dark ages.
‘It's an absolute scandal that Facebook are actively choosing to provide offenders with a way to hide in the shadows on their platform, seamlessly able to target, groom and abuse children completely undetected.’