Governments call on Facebook to pause encryption efforts

In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, US, UK and Australian officials worry Facebook’s encryption efforts will help child predators.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
2 min read

Facebook says it's taking precautions with its encryption plans to continue protecting people using its platform.

James Martin / CNET

Government officials from the US, UK and Australia want Mark Zuckerberg to pause Facebook's pivot to privacy, arguing that complete encryption on services like Messenger would prevent police from solving child exploitation crimes. 

Those concerns are laid out in a letter to the Facebook CEO and will be presented at the Justice Department's Lawful Access Summit in Washington, DC, on Friday. The summit echoes a long-held view from the US, UK and Australian governments on encryption -- calling on tech companies to provide access for law enforcement matters.

The letter is signed by US Attorney General William Barr, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton. BuzzFeed News first reported details about the letter to Facebook. 

"We are writing to request that Facebook does not 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 our citizens," the letter writes.

In 2016, Apple refused to build a backdoor key that would unlock a terrorist's encrypted iPhone for the FBI's investigation. Now Facebook will go up against the world's governments on encryption.

"End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. It is increasingly used across the communications industry and in many other important sectors of the economy," Facebook said in a statement. "We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere."

Law enforcement officials argued that encryption protects child predators hiding behind the security protocol. According to the letter, Facebook reported about 16.8 million cases to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2018. If Facebook encrypted its messaging services, it wouldn't be able to provide crucial evidence for solving these cases, government officials said.

"Real children and real homes all across the country and across the world have been rescued as a result of that ability," a US government official said on a press call Thursday. "That goes dark. We don't see that anymore. Those children go unrescued if that changes."

Facebook said it's taking precautions with its encryption plans to continue protecting people using its platform. In a statement, the company said it's consulting with child safety experts, governments and tech companies while creating teams and software to keep people safe. 

Government officials said they're not trying to "demonize Facebook," noting that the company had been very cooperative in the past with providing evidence on millions of cases of child exploitation. 

"There are very significant concerns that law enforcement officials have if Facebook were to end-to-end encrypt all of its platforms," a US government official said.