Facebook parent company Meta is getting into another political battle over the planned introduction of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) into its Messenger chat platform. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel makes this clear in an op-ed for the Conservative spokesperson The telegraph this week, saying it would be a “grotesque betrayal” if the company failed to consider child safety concerns when introducing E2EE. Similar arguments are likely to be raised in the United States as well.
Meta has been working on adding E2EE to Messenger for years and recently confirmed that it aims to encrypt all chats and calls on the default platform next year. (It currently only offers E2EE by default on its other major chat platform, WhatsApp, though users can sign up for E2EE on Messenger on a chat-by-chat basis.) The move rekindles long-running debates from decades on politics and technology on the right way to balance user privacy and security. In the United States, these arguments have been bolstered by the ability for police to issue search warrants for users’ chats to enforce new abortion laws after the overthrow of Roe vs. Wade.
In the UK, arguments over encryption tend to focus on child safety and the dissemination of child sexual abuse material, or CSAM. “A large number of child predators use social media platforms such as Facebook to discover, target and sexually abuse children,” Patel writes in his op-ed. “It is vital that law enforcement has access to the information they need to identify the children in these images and protect them from vile predators.”
Patel refers to a recent white paper written by the technical leads of GCHQ and the UK’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), which makes the case for “client-side scanning” as a means of balancing user privacy and the needs of forces of the order. It’s the same method Apple planned to introduce to Messages on iOS last year, before scrapping the proposal after facing heavy criticism. Essentially, client-side scanning compares photos and videos on users’ devices against a list of banned content. Privacy advocates argue that this list could easily be expanded to allow for broad and intrusive surveillance on said devices.
While Patel is clear that the UK government wants certain exclusions from Meta on encryption, it is unclear to what extent these demands are politically tenable. The UK’s Conservative Party planned to enforce compliance through its Safe Online Bill, sweeping legislation to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online. “. But the bill has been shelved – possibly permanently – due to the resignation of Boris Johnson as party leader, while the Tories’ ongoing battle for leadership means the government has no clear agenda for the moment. The encryption battle will absolutely continue, but at least in the UK the forces are not yet ready to enter the field.