The Home Secretary Suella Braverman has urged Meta not to roll out end-to-end encryption on its platforms without robust safety measures that ensure children are protected from sexual abuse and exploitation in messaging channels.
Meta has publicly announced plans to roll out end-to-end encryption on Instagram and Facebook Messenger imminently which will put children across the UK at risk of being targeted and groomed online by predators.
Currently, 800 predators a month are arrested by UK law enforcement agencies and up to 1,200 children are safeguarded from child sexual abuse following information provided by social media companies.
If Meta proceeds with their plans, they will no longer be able to detect child abuse on their platforms as they currently do, and the National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates 92% of Facebook Messenger and 85% of Instagram Direct referrals could be lost – meaning thousands of criminals a year could go undetected.
Now the Home Secretary, alongside the Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and Safeguarding Minister Sarah Dines, has called directly on Meta to urgently commit to installing safety measures on its platforms to protect children from vile attackers, or halt the planned rollout altogether.
The campaign has been backed by a raft of prominent charities and organisations who have united to support it, including the NSPCC, Marie Collins Foundation and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
The NSPCC recently reported that, a landmark letter, signed by 104 survivors and civil society organisations across 24 countries, compelled tech bosses to take responsibility for the safety of their products, including end-to-end encrypted services. A global coalition of more than 100 sexual abuse survivors, families and child safety experts have demanded tech companies act now to make sure their platforms are safe for children.
The letter to tech bosses was spearheaded by a survivor who was sexually abused via encrypted messaging app WhatsApp as a 13-year-old and has been signed by 43 survivors of online child sexual abuse and 61 global child safety organisations and academics. It urges companies to engage with survivors to assess the child safety risks of new and current products, including end-to-end encrypted messaging services.
Sir Peter Wanless, CEO at the NSPCC, said:
“It is crucial that legislators use the opportunities they have to give children the protections they deserve online. Meanwhile, tech companies need to be getting ahead of legislation and act now to make their products safe for all users who rely on their services, including children and abuse victims.”
In partnership with the IWF, the Home Office has also published a guide for parents) to advise them how best to keep their children safe if Meta does implement end-to-end encryption on the messaging service of Facebook and Instagram without appropriate child safety measures.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said:
“The use of strong encryption for online users remains a vital part of our digital world and I support it, so does the government, but it cannot come at a cost to our children’s safety.
Meta has failed to provide assurances that they will keep their platforms safe from sickening abusers. They must develop appropriate safeguards to sit alongside their plans for end-to-end encryption.
I have been clear time and time again, I am not willing to compromise on child safety.”
Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), said:
“It’s vital we do not give criminals and abusers anywhere to hide. We’ve seen the proliferation of this imagery accelerate in recent years. Knowingly switching off the lights on detecting child sexual abuse, and leaving whole spaces free for abusers to exploit would be a dangerous step.
We’ve always been of the view that advances in technology must not mean taking a backwards step for child safety. The tech exists now to prevent the sharing of child sexual abuse imagery without impacting on user privacy.”
This new development comes after the Home Secretary outlined her concerns to Meta in a letter co-signed by technology experts, law enforcement, survivors and leading child safety charities in July 2023.
In her letter, the Home Secretary emphasised the government is supportive of end-to-end encryption, but not without safety measures that would enable the detection of grooming and child sexual abuse material.