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UK, US and Australia call on Facebook to create backdoor to encrypted messages

Tyrone Stewart

Mark Zuckerberg (pictured speaking in the US Senate) is under pressure from the UK, US, and Australian governments to halt Facebook's end-to-end encryption plansFacebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has today received an open letter from representatives of the UK, US, and Australian governments calling on the company to delay its plans to implement end-to-end encryption across all of its messaging services.

Signed by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, US Attorney General William Barr, Acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, the letter raises concerns that Facebook’s encryption would protect those guilty of child sexual exploitation, terrorism, extortion, and other serious crimes from being investigated by law enforcement, impeding their roles and putting the public at risk.

The letter highlights an instance of when Facebook helped the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) to save a child from abuse by locating chats between the young girl and an adult male. As such, Facebook is being urged to put measures in place to enable it to continue effectively aiding law enforcement.

The nations would also like to see Facebook go a step further and introduce a way for law enforcement to lawfully access the content exchanged by users behind the encryption. Before Facebook implements any of these things, however, the governments would like to be consulted by the social media giant on design decisions.

Though critical of Facebook’s plans to encrypt content right across its messaging services, the governments say they fully support strong encryption and “respect promises made by technology companies to protect users’ data”.

The release of the letter coincides with a world-first agreement signed by Barr and Patel which will enable UK law enforcement to go directly to US tech companies for access to data, rather than going through government, with appropriate authorisation. The US will have the same access to data from UK communication service providers under a US court order.

The ‘Bilateral Data Access Agreement’ is aimed at speeding up the process of requesting data about suspected criminals, which can take up to two years. Once in place, the hope is for the agreement to reduce the time taken down to weeks or days.

“Terrorists and paedophiles continue to exploit the internet to spread their messages of hate, plan attacks on our citizens and target the most vulnerable,” said Patel.

“As Home Secretary I am determined to do everything in my power to stop them. This historic Agreement will dramatically speed up investigations, allowing our law enforcement agencies to protect the public.”

Barr added: “This Agreement will enhance the ability of the United States and the United Kingdom to fight serious crime – including terrorism, transnational organised crime, and child exploitation – by allowing more efficient and effective access to data needed for quick-moving investigations.

“Only by addressing the problem of timely access to electronic evidence of crime committed in one country that is stored in another, can we hope to keep pace with twenty-first century threats.

“This Agreement will make the citizens of both countries safer, while at the same time assuring robust protections for privacy and civil liberties.”

The agreement has no bearing on the ability of companies to use encryption though, hence the open letter to Facebook.

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