The United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have joined to request that Facebook delay its plans to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services.
First reported by BuzzFeed News, the governments on Thursday jointly published an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking for the company to ensure that encryption does not impede government officials from investigating possible crimes.
The letter was jointly signed by US Attorney General, William Barr; UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel; Australian Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton; and the US acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan.
The letter to Facebook said that companies “should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content” as the governments believe encryption will put citizens and societies at risk of child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign interference.
“Security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world,” the letter added.
It calls for Facebook to allow law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format; engage in consultation with governments to facilitate lawful access and allow this to influence Facebook’s design decisions; and to not implement any encryption changes.
This is despite the governments acknowledging that Facebook — along with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram — have captured 99% of the child sexual exploitation and terrorist content that reside on its platforms.
The letter comes as a response to Facebook’s announcement in March that the company would rebuild many of its services around encryption and privacy. At the time of the announcement, Zuckerberg said the ultimate end-goal behind the shift towards encryption would be to create social platforms that blended the community of a public social network with the intimacy and security of private messaging apps like Messenger and WhatsApp.
Internet advocacy groups have expressed deep concerns about attempts by Five Eyes governments to convince Facebook to abandon its plan to introduce end-to-end encryption in its messaging services, saying that strong encryption is an important feature for protecting users of social media platforms
“This push to remove encryption for certain investigations will undermine our security for countless other issues — encryption protects victims of domestic violence, it protects us from identity theft and scams (the latter is costing Australia billions of dollars a year), and it protects the integrity and reliability of our networks,” said Lucy Krahulcova, policy analyst of the non-profit internet advocacy group AccessNow.
“At a time when foreign governments and rogue actors increasingly target democratic elections, removing a layer of security from our systems should be of serious concern.”
Privacy advocates have also said that the creation of backdoors would effectively destroy the secrecy of such platforms. Tim Singleton Norton, chair of Digital Rights Watch, said that end-to-end encryption is like “a lock on a door” and is a basic requirement for security in any form of online communication in the digital age.
“People share all sorts of personal information using Facebook platforms like Messenger and Whatsapp, including things like credit card numbers for example. Unless these communications are encrypted, we run the risk of criminal hackers gaining access to this information.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), similarly, said in a tweet that companies should resist any attempts to weaken encryption as it protects sensitive data from identity thieves, credit card fraud, and human rights abusers.
“When a door opens for the US, Australia, or Britain, it also opens for hackers around the world,” the ACLU said.
See also: US AG Barr demands tech firms break encryption, ‘it can and must be done’
In late July, Barr warned that the use of end-to-end encryption — which he described as ‘warrant-proof’ encryption — “allows criminals to operate with impunity, hiding their activities under an impenetrable cloak of secrecy”.
His Australian counterpart, Dutton, said in an interview with Radio 2GB-4BC yesterday that encryption is being used to “protect paedophiles”.
“The companies at the moment won’t allow police to have access and it just doesn’t make any sense because we can stop children from becoming the next victim to a paedophile,” Dutton said.
In Australia and the UK, there are already encryption laws in place that give certain government agencies the power to compel tech companies to strip encryption from communications.
On the same day of the letter being published, Facebook also received a court decision that will give its European Union users the power to force content to be taken down globally if it is deemed to be defamatory or unlawful.