Rising heat on end-to-end encryption, UK hires M&C Saatchi in publicity attack on Meta

By Zion Rufus

The long standing concern on the cons of end-to-end encryption is taking a global turn as the United Kingdom Home Office is kicking off an advertising campaign to gather public opinion against end-to-end encryption on Meta’s social platforms. 

The UK Government is teaming up with creative company, M&C Saatchi and other charities and law enforcement agencies to launch a $730,500 multi-pronged  publicity attack on end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger and Instagram. The aim of the campaign is to communicate the message that end-to-end encryption could hinder efforts to curb child exploitation. 

The UK Home Office announced: “We have engaged M&C Saatchi to bring together the many organizations who share our concerns about the impact end-to-end encryption would have on our ability to keep children safe.”

In 2019, Meta, formerly Facebook, had disclosed its plans to roll out end-to-end encryption for Facebook Messenger and Instagram, which was scheduled to take full effect in 2022.  The company shared that people expect their private communications to be secure and to only be seen by the people they’ve sent them to, not hackers, criminals, overreaching governments or even the people operating the services they are using. The end-to-end encryption prevents law enforcement, and tech platforms, from seeing messages by ensuring that only the sender and recipient can view their content. However, in 2021, Meta announced its decision to postpone the encryption process to sometime in 2023, stating that the company was taking its time to get things right.

Is end-to-end encryption bad?

End-to-end encryption is the practice of encrypting data and information as it passes from device to device. The sending and receiving devices can see the original contents, but no other interceptors have the correct keys to decrypt the message.

However, the long-standing argument against the safety of end-to-end encryption are the child protection, law enforcement, and surveillance concerns. 

According to the United States Department of Justice, concerns about these risks have been brought into sharp focus by proposals to apply end-to-end encryption across major messaging services.  UNICEF estimates that one in three internet users is a child.  The WePROTECT Global Alliance – a coalition of 98 countries, 39 of the largest companies in the global technology industry, and 41 leading civil society organisations set out clearly the severity of the risks posed to children online by inaccessible encrypted services in its 2019 Global Threat Assessment: “Publicly-accessible social media and communications platforms remain the most common methods for meeting and grooming children online. 

In 2018, Facebook Messenger was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of CSAM [child sexual abuse material to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)]. These reports risk disappearing if end-to-end encryption is implemented by default, since current tools used to detect CSAM (child sexual abuse material) do not work in end-to-end encrypted environments. In 2019, NCMEC published a statement: “If end-to-end encryption is implemented without a solution in place to safeguard children, NCMEC estimates that more than half of its CyberTipline reports will vanish.”  

Also in 2019, the United States and European Union (EU) issued a joint statement making clear that while encryption is important for protecting cyber security and privacy: “the use of warrant-proof encryption by terrorists and other criminals – including those who engage in online child sexual exploitation – compromises the ability of law enforcement agencies to protect victims and the public at large.”

In 2020, the United States Department of Justice released an international statement on end-to-end encryption and public safety.

The statement reads in part: “We, the undersigned, support strong encryption, which plays a crucial role in protecting personal data, privacy, intellectual property, trade secrets and cyber security.  It also serves a vital purpose in repressive states to protect journalists, human rights defenders and other vulnerable people, as stated in the 2017 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. Encryption is an existential anchor of trust in the digital world and we do not support counter-productive and dangerous approaches that would materially weaken or limit security systems.”

“Particular implementations of encryption technology, however, pose significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children. We urge industry to address our serious concerns where encryption is applied in a way that wholly precludes any legal access to content,” the Department added.

The Department called on technology companies to work with governments to take the following steps, focused on reasonable, technically feasible solutions: embed the safety of the public in system designs, thereby enabling companies to act against illegal content and activity effectively with no reduction to safety, and facilitating the investigation and prosecution of offences and safeguarding the vulnerable; enable law enforcement access to content in a readable and usable format where an authorisation is lawfully issued, is necessary and proportionate, and is subject to strong safeguards and oversight; and engage in consultation with governments and other stakeholders to facilitate legal access in a way that is substantive and genuinely influences design decisions.



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