The Australian government, along with the US and UK, will ask Facebook to not proceed with its planned introduction of end to end encryption across its messaging services, arguing it poses a threat to public safety and will be exploited by child abusers.

An open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg cosigned by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his counterparts in the US and UK was published in full by Buzzfeed this morning ahead of its official release later today. The letter claims Facebook will lose most of its ability to identify suspicious activity online and suggests the improved encryption will help offenders “groom our children”.

Facebook has rejected the request to create special access for security agencies, describing it as a way to build “backdoors” into its platforms. Digital rights groups in the US say the framing of the changes as a public safety issue are “patently false” and the governments’ requested changes would actually be a bigger threat to security.

Update: Minister Dutton has provided the following statement to Which-50’s inquiry on the letter:

“Encryption is important for banking and other uses, but paedophiles are using it to order children and send images of children being raped. All companies, including Facebook must have zero tolerance when it comes to child exploitation and not allow their platforms to facilitate these sick crimes. At the moment even with a court ordered warrant police can’t access the messages to use as evidence to prosecute these evil criminals.

 “You’re either on the side of vulnerable children or not. It is time for Facebook to pick a side.”

What is Facebook changing?

In March, Facebook announced it was strengthening privacy protections for users following years of privacy scandals. The proposed changes include the introduction of end to end encryption for apps like Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. 

The change makes accessing message content much more difficult for anyone except the sender and receiver. Even if law enforcement can obtain warrants to access encrypted messages executing them is difficult because Facebook will no longer has the ability to monitor message content.

Dutton and his foreign counterparts said in the open letter they are concerned the changes will remove “lawful access to the content of communications” by security forces, making it more difficult for them to identify child abusers and other criminals.

“Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes,” the open letter cosigned by Dutton said.

“This puts our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims.

“It also impedes law enforcement’s ability to investigate these and other serious crimes. Risks to public safety from Facebook’s proposals are exacerbated in the context of a single platform that would combine inaccessible messaging services with open profiles, providing unique routes for prospective offenders to identify and groom our children.”

The security heads say they are concerned Facebook will lose the ability to report 70 per cent of the cases it currently sends to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children because it will no longer have access to users’ conversations.

The letter requests Facebook “embed the safety of the public in system designs” and enable law enforcement to “obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format”. 

It also asks Facebook to further consult with governments and suspend its proposed changes until systems are verifiably safe.

Rights group urges Facebook to carry on with encryption

Andi Wilson Thompson, a senior policy analyst at the Open Technology Institute, a US think tank which received relatively small donations from Facebook last year, says the UK, US and Australian governments requests puts users “in danger”.

“Designing a system to protect the privacy and security of billions of users is crucial to public safety, and preventing the implementation of security features in order to facilitate law enforcement access is counterproductive,” Wilson said in a statement.

“Facebook should absolutely continue its planned progress toward end-to-end encryption, and the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia should not work to undermine the security of communications technology that protects their own citizens from cyber and real-world threats.”

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