Tech companies should “live up to their moral duty” and do more to safeguard children, the home secretary will say later.
Priti Patel will speak at a virtual roundtable discussion about end-to-end message encryption hosted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) later today.
She will say that firms should “take the safety of children as seriously as they do the business of selling advertising, phones and online games”.
According to the NSPCC, private messaging is the “frontline of child sexual abuse online” and there is now an “either or” argument between adult privacy and child safety.
An NSPCC poll, carried out by YouGov, has found that public support for end-to-end encryption would almost double if it could be demonstrated that children’s safety would not be compromised.
Tech companies use a range of measures to identify child abuse images and detect grooming and sexual abuse in private messages on their platforms.
But there are fears that employing end-to-end encryption for Facebook Messenger and Instagram would make those measures redundant.
The NSPCC has said that an estimated 70% of global child abuse reports could be lost as a result.
In her remarks at the event, the home secretary is expected to accuse Facebook of “blinding itself to the problem” that end-to-end encryption will cause in cases of child abuse online.
“Sadly, at a time when we need to be taking more action, Facebook are pursuing end-to-end encryption plans that place the good work and progress achieved so far in jeopardy,” Ms Patel will say.
“The offending will continue, the images of children being abused will proliferate – but the company intends to blind itself to this problem through end-to-end encryption which prevents all access to messaging content.
“This is not acceptable. We cannot allow a situation where law enforcement’s ability to tackle abhorrent criminal acts and protect victims is severely hampered.
“Simply removing accounts from a platform is nowhere near enough.”
The home secretary is also expected to urge Facebook to deepen its engagement with ministers to ensure that public safety is at the heart of its system designs.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “Child exploitation has no place on our platforms and Facebook will continue to lead the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse.
“End-to-end encryption is already the leading security technology used by many services to keep people safe from hackers and criminals.
“Its full rollout on our messaging services is a long-term project and we are building strong safety measures into our plans.”
Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “Private messaging is the frontline of child sexual abuse but the current debate around end-to-end encryption risks leaving children unprotected where there is most harm.
“The public wants an end to rhetoric that heats up the issue but shines little light on a solution, so it’s in firms’ interests to find a fix that allows them to continue to use tech to disrupt abuse in an end-to-end encrypted world.”
According to the poll commissioned by the NSPCC, 33% of adults back the use of end-to-end encryption on social media and messaging services.
This figure rises to 62% if tech firms could make sure that children’s safety was protected.
More than half of adults (55%) think the ability to detect child abuse images trumps the right to privacy, the survey found.
Meanwhile, more than 90% of those polled backed social networks and messaging services having the technical ability to detect child abuse images on their platforms.
Sir Peter added: “We need a coordinated response across society, but ultimately government must be the guardrail that protects child users if tech companies choose to put them at risk with dangerous design choices.”
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