Last week, the US, UK, and Australian governments wrote an open letter to Facebook urging it to drop end-to-end encryption from WhatsApp and halt its plans to implement end-to-end encryption across its other messaging platforms. The three governments asked the company to ensure “there is no reduction to user safety” and include “a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens.”
The open letter is addressed to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and co-signed by US Attorney General William Barr, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, United Kingdom Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
This open letter to Facebook comes after the launch of a new “UK-US Bilateral Data Access Agreement.” This agreement aims to speed up electronic data access requests by their respective law enforcement agencies. This replaces the current process called Mutual Legal Assistance that requires law enforcement agencies to submit a request and get it approved by central governments, which can often take months or even years. The new process will only take a few weeks or even days.
Why the US, UK, and Australian governments are against end-to-end encryption
The three governments stated that though they realize the importance of strong encryption in processing services such as banking and commerce, end-to-end encryption would hinder the investigation of serious crimes. The letter reads, “We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity.”
The letter does praise Facebook of reporting 16.8 million cases to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which was more than 90% of the 18.4 million total reports in 2018. It further states that Facebook’s own safety systems were able to identify the 99% of the content Facebook takes action against, both for child sexual exploitation and terrorism. However, the governments believe that “the mere numbers cannot capture the significance of the harm to children.”
This is not the first time government officials have shown their dislike with end-to-end encryption. In 2017, Amber Rudd, the UK’s home secretary said after WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption, “We need to make sure that organizations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.” In December 2018, the Australian government passed a controversial anti-encryption law that allows law enforcement agencies to compel tech companies to hand over encrypted messaging data.
The government has listed the following steps for Facebook and other similar companies:
- The system should be designed in such a way that the companies behind them are able to effectively act against any illegal content without hampering the safety of others.
- Allow law enforcement to get lawful access to content in a readable and usable format.
- Engage in consultation with governments and let those consultations influence companies’ design decisions.
- The proposed changes should not be implemented until the safety of users is fully ensured by tested and operational systems.
What privacy experts and users think about this open letter to Facebook
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit that supports civil liberties and other legal issues pertaining to digital rights, called this act a “staggering attempt to undermine the security and privacy of communications tools used by billions of people.” It said, “Facebook should not comply.” The organization further said that the three governments failed to take into account the “severe risks” associated with introducing backdoors.
DOJ has made it clear: they want backdoor access to the private communications of billions of users of Facebook messaging products. We all need to stand up and say no. https://t.co/9ctkCzhLLr
— EFF (@EFF) October 6, 2019
The open letter to Facebook also did not sit well with several users. In a discussion on Hacker News users expressed that it would be wrong to undermine the security for millions of law-abiding users in order to investigate the wrongdoers. A user commented, “Privacy isn’t a trade-off against security, it’s a necessary component of having security.”
Another user added, “Criminal activities are exacerbated by the internet it would be a lie to say no. But just like with cars, scooters, or any tech that’s sufficiently democratized. They need a permit for a car? Why not just steal it? I need an identity to do shady stuff on the internet? Why not steal it?
We cannot reason with malevolent forces, there is always going to be away. And by that time, we compiled the data of everyone, centralized it all, and let govs that don’t understand the implication collect those as if it was mere petrol or gold. We are putting everyone’s lives at risk doing so, just wait until it leaks out or it starts getting sold. (ahem, oh wait !)”
Read the open letter to Facebook for more details.