Authorities ask Facebook to rethink its plan to encrypt messaging, citing public safety concerns

Authorities ask Facebook to rethink its plan to encrypt messaging, citing public safety concerns
Legal

Officials from the UK, US, and Australia are asking Facebook to reconsider its plan to encrypt user messages, saying it could hinder efforts to fight terrorism and ensure public safety, according to The Guardian

In an open letter first reported by BuzzFeed News, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, US Attorney General William Barr, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, call on CEO Mark Zuckerberg to allow backdoor access to encrypted communication. 

It asks 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 our citizens.”

Facebook defended the encryption, saying that “people have the right to have a private conversation online” and that the company is “consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies” to protect public welfare. 

On Friday, the US and UK signed an agreement to make it easier to share data between law enforcement agencies in the two countries, allowing British authorities to obtain data from US tech firms, a process which can take as long as two years, in as little as weeks or days. But messages with end-to-end encryption, such as those sent over Facebook’s WhatsApp platform, will still be inaccessible. 

While WhatsApp already uses end-to-end encryption, Facebook is planning to integrate that platform with messaging on Facebook and Instagram, putting encryption in place for all three. The company has faced mounting controversy and criticism in the past year, over the platform’s mishandling of user data. They say the encryption plan is part of their efforts to become a “privacy-focused communications platform.”

But in the letter, officials argue that Facebook must “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.”

While governments have long called for “backdoors” allowing access to encrypted communications, security experts have said any such plan would compromise overall privacy and security.

According to Guillermo Beltra, political director for Access Now, a digital rights non-profit:

“The UK, United States, and Australian authorities are once again falling into a false dichotomy between security and encryption. The reality is that encryption is an essential technology that strengthens the security of the internet’s infrastructure and enables users to enjoy their civil and political rights and express themselves freely.”

Photo by Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

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