UK may force Facebook services to allow backdoor police access

End-to-end encryption could be challenged with security agencies enabled to monitor user messages

Ministers are considering forcing Facebook to implement a backdoor to allow security agencies and police to read the contents of messages sent across its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram chat services.

Industry sources say they understand that the Home Office is threatening to use a special legal power called a technical capability notice to compel Facebook to develop a system to allow for the eavesdropping of messages.

The Open Rights Group, a privacy watchdog, said it feared that demanding backdoor access would mean “subjecting all our private messages to monitoring and surveillance on the assumption that we are all criminals”.

Jim Killock, its executive director, called on Boris Johnson to “stay true to his libertarian instincts” and “resist the Orwellian and frankly dangerous impulses of the Home Office and some of his colleagues to snoop on our private messages”.

The Home Office argues that Facebook products can be exploited by paedophiles, and is using concerns about child safety to pile pressure on the US company as it tries to upgrade the security of all its services – in particular by extending end-to-end encryption to its Messenger app.

Although the Home Office said it would not comment on whether it would hit Facebook with a technical capability notice, citing reasons of national security, a spokesperson reiterated the government’s concerns.

“End-to-end encryption poses an unacceptable risk to user safety and society. It would prevent any access to messaging content and severely erode tech companies’ ability to tackle the most serious illegal content on their own platforms, including child abuse and terrorism,” they said.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, is expected to raise the issue at a roundtable discussion later this month organised by the NSPCC, the children’s protection charity, according to a report in Wired. Last week the NSPCC said 52% of online child sex crimes in England and Wales were committed over Facebook-owned apps, according to data it had collected from police forces covering 9,477 offences between October 2019 and September 2020.

Technical capability notices were introduced in the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act, which aimed to regularise government powers of snooping and hacking in the aftermath of the disclosures by Edward Snowden revealing the scale of covert mass surveillance operated by intelligence agencies in the UK.

Each individual capability notice is secret, as is their total number. They require phone and internet companies subject to one to build backdoor access into their systems, allowing them to respond promptly to legitimate surveillance requests. Until now, Facebook is not thought to have been subject to one.

Ministers are preparing to introduce an online safety bill later this year that will give Ofcom the power to fine companies up to 10% of global turnover if they do not abide by new guidelines to remove illegal content such as child sexual abuse or terrorist material and media that promote suicide.

However, the legislation will take time to get through parliament and it is unclear how far messaging apps will be covered by the rules. At a press briefing last month, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, complained about Facebook’s encryption plans and added: “We are keeping all options on the table.”

Facebook said end-to-end encryption was “already the leading security technology used by many services to keep people safe from having their private information hacked and stolen”. It described its plans to deploy the technology across its messaging apps as “a long-term project”.


Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

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