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End-to-end encryption places children at risk of abuse

Concerns have been raised for the safety of children being targeted for abuse online as a result of social media and messaging services introducing end-to-end encryption.

End-to-end encryption means only the devices communicating have the ability to decrypt and read the messages. While this is useful for privacy, it also presents risks for child safety and means abuse can go unnoticed online.

A survey carried out by YouGov and the NSPCC found that one third of UK adults support using end-to-end encryption. However, this figure rises to 62% of adults supporting its use if it is only rolled out once tech firms can ensure that children are safe and protected.

“Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC Chief Executive, 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.”

Large tech firms use a range of technological tools to identify child abuse images and detect grooming and sexual abuse in private messages. However, Facebook’s proposals for end-to-end encryption for Facebook Messenger and Instagram would make these tools useless, with an estimate of 70% of global child abuse reports lost. In 2018 these reports resulted in 2,500 arrests and 3,000 children being safeguarded in the UK.

The NSPCC says the debate around end-to-end encryption has increasingly become an argument skewed in favour of adult privacy over the safety and privacy rights of children. However, the latest poll shows that the public support balancing the safety of children while maximising the privacy of all users, including the children who have been sexually abused.

The survey found:

- More than half of adults in the UK believe the ability to detect child abuse images is more important than the right to privacy.

- Almost a third think they are equally important.

- Just 4% say privacy should be prioritised over safety.

- 92% support social networks and messaging services having the technical ability detect child abuse images on their sites.

- 91% support a technical ability to detect adults sending sexual images to children on their services.

The children’s charity hosted a round-table event attended by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel bringing together child protection, civil society and law enforcement experts from the UK, US, Canada, Ireland, and Australia. The debate focused on showing how end-to-end encryption takes away platforms’ ability to find abuse in private messaging, and how this can be avoided.

The NSPCC presented research and analysis about the implications of end-to-end encryption for child protection and called for tech firms to refocus their approach through safer design features and investment in technology. The children’s charity urges tech firms to strive to achieve a new balance that properly weighs the benefits and risks of end-to-end encryption, underpinned by legal safeguards through regulation.

The NSPCC calls for:

- The needs of all users, including children, to be considered.

- Children’s safety must not be characterised as a simple trade off against adult’s privacy.

- Children’s digital rights under international law need to be reflected.

- Tech firms should respect the full range of fundamental rights at stake, and not prioritise some over others.

- Design features that can increase the risk of end-to-end encryption to children should be investigated such as Facebook algorithms that suggest children as friends to adults or plans to auto delete messages on WhatsApp.

Sir Peter Wanless said: “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.

“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,” he concluded.

End to end encryption: Understanding the impacts for child safety online

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