US, UK and Australia seek keys to Facebook's encrypted messages
04 October 2019
Government authorities in the United States, Britain and Australia are planning to pressure Facebook not to use encryption in all its messaging services without providing authorities a way to see what is being sent, reigniting a longstanding debate over how to balance privacy with public safety.
In a request laid out in a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, signed by US Attorney General William Barr, US acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan, British home secretary Priti Patel and Australian minister for home affairs Peter Dutton, the three allies have asked Facebook to create a backdoor into its encrypted messaging apps that would allow governments to access the content of private communications.
The open letter, dated 4 October, requests Facebook not to proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect citizens.
Also on Friday, the US and UK announced the signing of a “world-first” data access agreement that will allow law enforcement agencies to demand certain data directly from the other country’s tech firms. The agreement is designed to facilitate investigations related to terrorism, child abuse and exploitation, and other serious crimes.
Prior to the agreement, requests for data from foreign technology companies were routed through governments, a process that usually took six months to two years. The new bilateral agreement is expected to speed this process significantly, to weeks or even days.
Zuckerberg defended his decision to encrypt the company’s messaging services despite concerns about its impact on child exploitation and other criminal activity.
Zuckerberg, speaking Thursday in a livestreamed version of the company’s weekly internal Q&A session, said child exploitation risks weighed “most heavily” on him when he was making the decision and pledged steps to minimise harm.
Also on Thursday, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement: “We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”
Facebook’s messaging app WhatsApp already employs end-to-end encryption, shielding the content of its 1.5 billion users’ messages from the company itself. In March 2019, Zuckerberg announced plans to integrate Facebook’s other messaging apps, Facebook Messenger and Instagram, with WhatsApp and incorporate end-to-end encryption across the entire service. Facebook’s move to expand the use of encryption followed a year in which the company came under global criticism for its failure to protect the data of its users, and it was branded as a pivot toward a “privacy-focused communications platform”.
But law enforcement agencies say encrypted communications also protect criminals and terrorists while stymying investigators.
“Security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world,” the open letter reads. “We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity. Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”
The letter specifically focuses on the threat of child sexual exploitation and abuse, noting that Facebook’s combination of encrypted messaging and open profiles could provide “unique routes for prospective offenders to identify and groom our children”.
“In 2018, Facebook made 16.8 million reports to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) – more than 90% of the 18.4 million total reports that year,” the letter states. “NCMEC estimates that 70% of Facebook’s reporting – 12 million reports globally – would be lost (if Facebook implements encryption as planned).”
The letter asserts that the governments “support strong encryption” while also demanding “a means for lawful access to the content of communications” – an apparent reference to a so-called “backdoor” into the encrypted communications.
Governments have often proposed such backdoors as a compromise measure, but security experts argue that it is impossible to provide limited access to encrypted communication without weakening privacy overall.