The US, the UK and Australia have called on Facebook Inc to not go ahead with end-to-end encryption across its messaging services unless law enforcement officials have backdoor access, saying that encryption hinders the fight against child abuse and terrorism.
The US and the UK also signed a special data agreement that would fast-track requests from law enforcement to technology companies for information about the communications of terrorists and child predators.
Law enforcement could get information in weeks or even days instead of the current wait of six months to two years.
The latest tug-of-war between governments and tech companies over user data could also affect Apple Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, as well as smaller encrypted chat apps like Signal.
Washington has called for more regulation and launched antitrust investigations against many tech companies, criticizing them over privacy lapses, election-related activity and dominance in online advertising.
In an open letter to Facebook and its chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, the three allies said that while they supported strong encryption, it was necessary to balance the need for secure data with public safety.
They urged Facebook and other companies to “enable law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format.”
The letter was signed by US Attorney General William Barr, UK Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel and Australian Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
“Unfortunately, Facebook has not committed to address our serious concerns about the impact its proposals could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens,” the letter reads.
Child predators have increasingly used messaging applications, including Facebook’s Messenger, to groom children and exchange explicit images and videos. The number of known child sexual abuse images has soared from thousands to tens of millions in just the past few years.
Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, US Associate Attorney General Sujit Raman said that the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 18 million tips of online child sex abuse last year, more than 90 percent of them from Facebook.
He estimated that up to 75 percent of those tips would “go dark” if social media companies like Facebook were to go through with encryption plans.
Facebook said in a statement that it strongly opposes “government efforts to build backdoors,” which it said would undermine privacy and security.
Zuckerberg on Thursday said that he had been aware of child exploitation risks before announcing his encryption plan and acknowledged that it would reduce tools to fight the problem.
Speaking in a livestream of the company’s weekly internal question-and-answer session, he said he was “optimistic” that Facebook would be able to identify predators even in encrypted systems using the same tools it used to fight election interference, like patterns of activity and links between accounts on different platforms.
He also suggested that the company might further limit the ways adults can interact with minors on Facebook’s platforms.
The bilateral agreement between the UK and the US would empower the UK government to directly request data from US tech companies rather than asking for it via US law enforcement officials.
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