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Griffin on Tech: Meta's messaging apps about to go dark  

Peter Griffin, Editor. 22 September 2023, 10:17 am

After years of promising to add end to end encryption to all of its messaging platforms, Meta now looks set to move to full encryption by the end of the year.

It’s WhatsApp platform has offered encrypted messaging for years and various pilot projects have applied it to Facebook Messenger at times too too. Turning on end-to-end encryption for Meta’s billions of users is a good thing for the security and privacy of its users. But it will have some adverse consequences.

Advocates of encryption argue that any terrorist, paedophile or criminal mastermind will already be using an encrypted service like Telegram or Signal, that’s beyond the reach of law enforcement agencies. That’s true, but Messaging on Facebook and Instagram is unfortunately a hotbed of grooming activity that leads to bullying and sexual abuse of children. Meta’s messaging apps also hosts a massive trade in sexual abuse images by oblivious or ignorant criminals who don’t realise Meta can see what they are sharing.

The US National Crime Agency, tasked with fighting serious crime, estimates that moving to end-to-end encryption will lead to a sharp decline in leads passed to the ​​National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which investigates sexual child exploitation cases around the world.

The UK’s Parliament finally passed the Online Safety Bill this week, after four years of haggling over its contents, and end-to-end encryption in particular. Tech experts argued strongly that requiring encryption systems to be able to be scanned for sexual abuse images would fundamentally break the encryption.

The UK Government finally relented on that point, adding a clause to the legislation late last year stating that companies wouldn’t be required to enable scanning of messages until it is "technically feasible and where technology has been accredited as meeting minimum standards of accuracy in detecting only child sexual abuse and exploitation content.”

Backdown on content scanning

That was the UK government kicking the can down the road in an effort to get its four-year-old bill over the line. The US Government also doesn’t want Meta to move to full encryption - it regularly requests Meta to hand over private messages sent via its platform.

But there’s also a push among Democrats in Congress and well as by human rights groups to go ahead with full encryption. They point to the conviction in July of a girl and her mother on abortion charges.

In the wake of the Supreme Court overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, abortion is now illegal or restricted in 21 US states. The 17 year-old girl’s direct messages discussing the abortion were handed over by Meta to the police.

There will no doubt be more unusual cases like that, but you also have to consider the benefits of extra security and protection from hackers that strong encryption provides billions of people.

Still, it feels very much like Mark Zuckerberg wanting to wash his hands of problematic behaviour on his platform. Meta says it has introduced new safeguards, such as restricting over-19s from messaging teens who do not follow them. It will use artificial intelligence to scan for “suspicious activity”.

But the reality is that it won’t be able to see a lot of criminal activity it currently has visibility into and which law enforcement agencies can seek a warrant to access. When Meta flicks the switch on end-to-end encryption, a company not known to have a strong record when it comes to trust will be running a massive real-time experiment the likes of which the world has never seen. 



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