Plans by social media firms to widen the use of end-to-end encryption will put children a risk, Children Commissioner warns
The issue of technology and its use by children is once again the spotlight, after a report was published by a child protection official in England.
The Children’s Commission for England, on Tuesday published a report entitled ‘Access Denied’, which expanded on how end-to-end encryption is threatening children’s safety online.
The central thrust of the report’s argument, is that plans by social media firms to increase the use of encrypted messages, would make it impossible for platforms to monitor content (which is kinda of the whole point about encryption).
The report highlighted that most eight-year-olds are using instant messaging apps, which are supposedly restricted to those aged 13 or older.
“Today’s generation of kids are born and raised in a world of instant connection,” noted Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield. “While adults can be quick to panic about the long-term effects of a ‘digital childhood’, my time as Children’s Commissioner has reassured me that kids’ lives online are far from entirely negative.”
“However, my experience in this role has also revealed to me the huge gulf between the risks to children of being online and the safeguards in place to protect them,” she added. “While we rightfully demand protections where children may encounter harm in the physical world – in schools, hospitals and playgroups, for example – I have routinely found a dangerous absence of any similar safeguarding mechanisms in the digital sphere.”
“The focus of this briefing turns to messaging services, like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger, which have shot up in popularity in recent years,” she wrote.
Longfield said that their survey found that nine in ten children aged 8-17 are using these services.
And while the the vast majority are using messaging platforms to chat safely with friends and family, the survey found that over a third of children say that they have received something that made them feel uncomfortable on one of these messaging services.
Indeed, their survey found that around one in six girls aged 14-17 had received something distressing from a stranger.
“Because these services are, by their very nature, private, accessed on a child’s own phone for example, it can be hard for parents, carers and teachers to keep track or understand who their children are contacting by direct message,” Longfield said.
“Our findings also show that a significant proportion of children are using messaging platforms that they are not old enough to be accessing,” she added.
And then Longfield touch upon the subject of encryption.
“Given these real risks to children, we would expect that tech firms would be planning to do more, not less, to aggressively root out and prevent the proliferation of child abuse on their platforms,” said Longfield. “However, last year we heard announcements from Facebook, and indications by other platforms such as Snap, that they plan to apply end-to-end encryption across all their messaging services.”
“End to end encryption makes it impossible for the platform itself to read the contents of messages, and risks preventing police and prosecutors from gathering the evidence they need to prosecute perpetrators of child sexual exploitation and abuse,” said Longfield. “I worry that this could be a cynical attempt on the part of some tech firms to side-step sanctions and litigation, especially as the UK Government prepares to establish a new legal ‘duty of care’ on companies towards their users.”
“If a platform is unable to read a message shared across their server, it follows that it would be hard for a Government to hold them accountable for its contents,” she said. “I don’t see this challenge as unassailable – but we must ensure that Government and the tech industry work together to embed child protection in end-to-end encryption, and that future technologies are designed with child safety in mind.”
Critics will point out that Longfield’s comments on end-to-end encryption are misguided, as it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.
Critics would also point out that instead of targeting end-to-end encryption, more focus should be on clamping down so that children are not bypassing age restrictions on messaging apps.
To be fair the report does recommend that tech platforms get tougher to verify their users’ ages, and it calls for severe sanctions against those that breach a duty of care, with heavy fines and a requirement to inform users when they do so.