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A UK government-backed campaign aims to thwart end-to-end encryption rollout

A new government-backed campaign in the UK is pressuring tech companies to halt the use of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) on social media platforms to make it easier for law enforcement to detect child abuse and exploitation. 

E2EE is a technology soon to be adopted by several social media platforms including Facebook Messenger and Instagram to provide greater privacy to users by restricting who can view messages in private online conversations. The technology only allows access to the sender and receiver while scrambling the messages to any outside actors — including app owners and law enforcement.

The campaign, called No Place to Hide, says the technology—although valuable—would put children at greater risk if it is introduced the way social media companies are planning. “They will no longer be able to detect child sexual abuse on their platforms and therefore won’t be able to report it,” according to the campaign’s website. “If these plans go ahead an estimated 14 million reports of suspected child sexual abuse online could be lost each year. This could have a catastrophic impact on child safety.”

Although No Place to Hide claims to not concretely oppose E2EE, their proposals would make it near impossible for tech companies to proceed with their plans for the technology. The campaign’s website states that companies should only use E2EE if they administer sufficient technology to protect children and prove that the encryption does not further risk their safety. 

The coalition says it is composed of “a range of organisations from across society” including charities, safety-tech companies, and survivors of child sexual abuse, but it is largely being funded by the UK government, according to a report from Rolling Stone. The Home Office, a ministerial department of the UK government, disclosed in a response to a Freedom of Information request that it has allocated £534,000 (about $725,000) for the campaign. 

The campaign and its government backing have led privacy groups and other organizations to push back against decreasing the security measures.

Big Brother Watch, a UK civil liberties group, vocalized these concerns in a response published on Tuesday calling the campaign an “attempt to justify yet wider and deeper state surveillance of everyday, private conversations.” The group did not respond to a request for additional comment.

The conversation contributes to a larger discussion that has persisted for years—whether or not citizens rank the right to safety above the right to privacy. However, the notion of privacy co-existing with safety remains ambiguous when applied to cyberspace, and more specifically when applied to this campaign.

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Emma Vail

Emma Vail is an editorial intern for The Record. She is currently studying anthropology and women, gender, and sexuality at Northeastern University. After creating her own blog in 2018, she decided to pursue journalism and further her experience by joining the team.