Tech Firms Pledge Child Abuse Disclosures To Blunt Anti-Encryption Drive

As political pressure grows on tech firms to ease off on encryption, big name tech firms have pledged to improve and standardise annual child exploitation disclosures.

The pledge came from the Technology Coalition that was formed in 2006 to co-ordinate industry action around child sexual abuse. It said it would establish a “multi-million” dollar research fund to study patterns of abuse and build technological tools to prevent them.

The coalition members include Abode, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Instagram, among others.

Industry action

The Technology Coalition announced the new fund as part of its ‘Project Protect’ scheme, which has four key strategies.

The first is to “execute a Strategic ‘Five Pillar’ Plan to reinforce the cross-industry approach to combating CSEA (child sexual exploitation and abuse), putting in place the structure, membership models, and staffing needed to support the Technology Coalition’s long term objectives.”

The second is establishing a multi-million dollar Research and Innovation Fund to build crucial technological tools needed to more effectively prevent and work to eradicate CSEA.

The third strategy is to “commit to publishing an Annual Progress Report on industry efforts to combat CSEA,” and the fourth is to “create an annual Forum for CSEA experts bringing together industry, governments, and civil society to share best practices and drive collective action.”

At this time, there is no further detail on what metrics would be tracked, or what data would be included in the annual disclosures.

Encryption battle

The issue of child abuse and child exploitation is commonly the stick with which politicians like to beat tech firms and their efforts to strengthen encryption.

Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp for example in February this year, strongly defend its stance on encryption, in light of growing pressure from governments and authorities for the social network to allow them access.

In December 2019, during a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, both democrat and republican senators displayed a rare show of unity when they demanded that tech firms open up encryption to police, and senators accused tech firms of “shielding criminals”.

Last November Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organisation, halted its criticism of encryption after objections by tech companies and civil liberties advocates.

Political pressure

But in some countries, political pressure is paying off.

Australia in December 2018 for example made a significant change to online privacy after it passed a law that requires technology giants to give police access to encrypted data, in cases where it could be linked to criminal or militant activity.

Other countries have threatened to follow suit.

Facebook for its part has been singled out of late after announcing plans to fully encrypt its Messenger chats by default (WhatsApp messages are already encrypted).

In August the US Department of Justice reportedly 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.

But in October Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision to encrypt the company’s messaging services, after an open letter 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.

Essentially that letter raised concerns that Facebook’s plan to build end-to-end encryption into its messaging apps would prevent law enforcement agencies from searching for child sexual exploitation, terrorism, and election meddling.

Encryption frustration

In 2018 the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) listed encryption as one of the technologies making criminals’ jobs easier, as it makes it more difficult for law enforcement organisations to “collect intelligence and evidence”.

Apple has already made its position regarding encryption perfectly clear to US authorities, and CEO Tim Cook recently called for a federal privacy law in the United States.

But Apple was also placed under immense pressure in a high-profile 2016 case, in which the FBI attempted to force Apple to assist it in unlocking an iPhone connected to a mass shooting in California.

Apple refused, and ultimately the FBI paid a third-party security group to hack into the handset.

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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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