The UK government has urged Meta Platforms not to roll out end-to-end encryption on Instagram and Facebook Messenger.

The government wants Meta to first install “safety measures” to protect children from sexual abuse, and it comes after the Online Safety Bill was passed on Tuesday by both houses of parliament, thereby setting it to become a UK law.

It should be remembered that Meta had switched on end-to-end encryption for its WhatsApp messaging service back in 2016, and since that time it has been mulling the default deployment of end-to-end encryption for Messenger.

Encrypted Backups

Encryption pressure

Meta and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have consistently opposed attempts to weaken encryption over the years, but critics have said the security measure would make it much more difficult for law enforcement to catch child predators.

In 2018 the US government for example pressured Facebook to break the encryption in its Messenger app, so law enforcement could listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe.

And in October 2019 CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision to encrypt the company’s messaging services, after an open letter protesting the move was signed by the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, US Attorney General Bill Barr, acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

Meta and Zuckerberg have continued to defend the default use of end-to-end encryption for people’s messages.

In August 2022 Facebook announced it was testing encrypted backups, and encrypted Messenger chats by default.

It should be noted Messenger chats can be encrypted, but it is not switch on by default. Messages can only be encrypted if the user taps the Edit button in the top right of the Messenger Home tab. Pressing the Secret toggle in the top right will enable encrypted chats.

Meta plans to implement end-to-end encryption across Messenger and Instagram direct messages, saying the technology re-enforced safety and security.

It switched on an encrypted Messenger call option in August 2021.

UK opposition

However the UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she supported strong encryption for online users but it could not come at the expense of children’s safety.

“Meta has failed to provide assurances that they will keep their platforms safe from sickening abusers,” she was quoted by Reuters as saying. “They must develop appropriate safeguards to sit alongside their plans for end-to-end encryption.”

Braverman also reportedly added that “Meta has failed to provide assurances that they will keep their platforms safe from sickening abusers. They must develop appropriate safeguards to sit alongside their plans for end-to-end encryption.”

Meta disputes this and a Meta spokesperson told Reuters: “The overwhelming majority of Brits already rely on apps that use encryption to keep them safe from hackers, fraudsters and criminals.”

“We don’t think people want us reading their private messages so have spent the last five years developing robust safety measures to prevent, detect and combat abuse while maintaining online security,” the Meta spokesperson added.

Social media platforms will face tougher requirements to protect children from accessing harmful content when the Online Safety Bill passed by parliament on Tuesday becomes law.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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