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Facebook urged to halt encryption push over child abuse concerns

Child safety advocates say encryption will allow predators to operate undetected on the social network.

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A letter from child safety advocates asks Facebook to stop its plans until "sufficient safeguards" are in place.

Muhammed Selim Korkutata/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

More than 120 organizations around the world have signed an open letter urging Facebook to halt plans to implement strongly encrypted messaging on the social network, saying it would allow child predators to operate on the site undetected.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year that the company plans to add an extra layer of security to its messaging services as part of an effort to make it possible for WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram users to send messages to one another without switching apps.

Like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram messages would be end-to-end encrypted, meaning messages couldn't be viewed by anyone outside the sender and recipient, including law enforcement officials.

But the letter, signed by a group of 129 child protection organizations led by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, urges the company to stop its plans until "sufficient safeguards" are in place.

"At a time when we could be looking to build upon years of sophisticated initiatives, Facebook instead seems inclined to blindfold itself," according to the letter.

"We urge you to recognize and accept that an increased risk of child abuse being facilitated on or by Facebook is not a reasonable trade-off to make," the letter said. "Children should not be put in harm's way either as a result of commercial decisions or design choices."

The groups are asking the company to invest in "safety measures" that show that encryption wouldn't harm child safety and share data with government and child protection experts. 

Facebook said protecting children while they're online is "critically important" to its encryption plans and that it's working closely with organizations, governments, law enforcement and other tech companies to keep kids safe.

"We have led the industry in safeguarding children from exploitation and we are bringing this same commitment and leadership to our work on encryption," David Miles, head of safety for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said in a statement. "Over the last few years, we've tripled the size of our safety and security team and now have more than 35,000 people working to protect the people using our platforms.

"We are also continuing to invest billions in safety, including artificial intelligence technology to proactively find and remove harmful content," Miles said.

Government officials from the US, UK and Australia have already asked Zuckerberg to pause the encryption push, arguing that it protects child predators hiding behind the security protocol. According to the US Justice Department, Facebook made 16.8 million reports of child sexual exploitation and abuse to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2018.

Facebook's plan also comes as the company faces scrutiny for a series of privacy scandals. In 2018, revelations surfaced that UK political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their consent. Some cryptographers also worry that WhatsApp encryption could become less secure.

NSPCC CEO Peter Wanless called on Facebook to address concerns raised by child welfare groups.

"Mark Zuckerberg has a choice whether to allow sexual abuse to soar on his sites or listen to those from all over the world asking him to rethink how to implement encryption without putting children at risk," he said in a statement.

CNET's Queenie Wong contributed to this report. 

Originally published Feb. 5
Update, Feb. 6: Includes statement from NSPCC and more information from the letter. 

Correction, Feb. 6: An earlier version of this story misstated the year the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light. It was 2018.