Children are going to be left wide open to abuse if the social media platform Meta goes ahead with its plans to introduce coding that prevents anyone else from seeing the contents of a message except the sender and recipient, warns Tom Tugendhat, the Government’s minister for security.
The social media channels Facebook and Instagram intend to adopt end-to-end encryption, meaning no one else, including police, governments and even the social media platforms themselves, can easily de-code any encryption.
In an article for The Telegraph aimed at the social media giant, the Tonbridge and Malling MP has said it should not press ahead with end-to-end encryption, stating with “influence comes responsibility”.
He added: “We know that child sex abusers are using sites such as Facebook and Instagram to easily discover, target, groom and exploit children without ever leaving the platform.”
The plans have caused a rift in the social media world, with critics of Meta saying it is misguided not to provide some kind of access to messages, but others claiming that leaving the system as it is leaves it vulnerable to hacking.
Mr Tugendhat’s concerns are in line with other governments and agencies globally that have also made their views known to Meta, Mark Zuckerberg’s media behemoth.
In the Telegraph, Mr Tugendhat has written: “We believe in privacy because we believe in freedom… but it is wrong to present this as a binary choice. We don’t need to choose between the benefits of end-to-end encryption and child safety – we can have both and indeed we must have both.
“We are urging companies like Meta to implement robust safety systems that maintain or increase child safety alongside end-to-end encryption.
“Companies such as Meta have amassed vast power and influence over our lives. With that influence comes responsibility. It’s not acceptable for tech executives to make vast profits from their youngest users while refusing to protect them.”
Among the agencies also urging Mr Zuckerberg to amend his plans are the National Crime Agency in the UK, the FBI, and Interpol, who in a joint statement warned that the plan “degrades safety systems and weakens the ability to keep child users safe”.
Their statement added: “The abuse will not stop just because companies decide to stop looking. We all have a role to play in protecting children in online spaces and we strongly urge industry partners to take active steps toward this goal.”
A Meta spokesman was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: “The overwhelming majority of Brits already rely on apps that use encryption. We don’t think people want us reading their private messages, so have developed safety measures that prevent, detect and allow us to take action against this heinous abuse, while maintaining online privacy and security.
“As we continue to roll out our end-to-end encryption plans, we remain committed to working with law enforcement and child safety experts to ensure that our platforms are safe for young people.”
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However, Mr Tugendhat hit back, writing: “Over the past decade tens of millions of the worst images and videos of child sexual exploitation have been shared online. Each year, many are identified and reported by technology companies to law enforcement agencies, but tragically new ones are being made at unprecedented rates.”
He added that at the moment media firms like Meta do find and report child sexual abuse material to the police — something that is known to protect 1,000 children a month, and results in 800 arrests.
But he said: “That could be about to change. Meta’s plans to roll out end-to-end encryption could mean that their ability to identify and disrupt the abhorrent and predatory behaviour on their platforms will be lost.”
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