British law enforcement agencies will be able to directly demand electronic data relating to child sexual abusers, terrorists, and other serious criminals from US tech firms. The world-first UK-US Bilateral Data Access Agreement was signed with US Attorney General William P. Barr in Washington DC and the home secretary Priti Patel.
The agreement "will dramatically speed up investigations and prosecutions by enabling law enforcement, with appropriate authorisation, to go directly to the tech companies to access data, rather than through governments, which can take years".
Mr Barr and Ms Patel also met security partners to discuss the two countries’ ever deeper cooperation and global leadership on security.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: "Terrorists and paedophiles continue to exploit the internet to spread their messages of hate, plan attacks on our citizens and target the most vulnerable.
"As Home Secretary I am determined to do everything in my power to stop them. This historic Agreement will dramatically speed up investigations, allowing our law enforcement agencies to protect the public.
"This is just one example of the enduring security partnership we have with the US and I look forward to continuing to work with them and global partners to tackle these heinous crimes," she added.
Under the current procedures, which see requests for communications data from law enforcement agencies submitted and approved by central governments via Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA), it can often take anywhere from six months to two years. However, under the new agreement, the process will be reduced to a matter of weeks or even days.
The US will have reciprocal access, under a US court order, to data from UK communication service providers.
The Agreement does not change anything about the way companies can use encryption and does not stop companies from encrypting data.
Internet Watch Foundation CEO, Susie Hargreaves OBE, said: “This data access agreement which promises to speed up the detection of people who commit crimes against children is commendable.”
The Home Secretary has also published an open letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg alongside US Attorney General William P. Barr, Acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton outlining serious concerns with the company’s plans to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services.
The letter calls for the plans to be stopped unless Facebook can provide assurances that there will be no reduction in the company's ability to keep its users safe and enable law enforcement access to content in exceptional circumstances in order to protect the public.
This issue is not restricted to Facebook but the letter makes clear the particular concerns with Facebook’s plans and the impact they would have on efforts to tackle online child sexual abuse and terrorism.
Facebook made 16.8 million reports of child sexual exploitation and abuse content to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2018, 12 million of which it is estimated would be lost if the company pursues its plan to implement end-to-end encryption. These referrals from Facebook have led to more than 2,500 arrests in 2018 and almost 3,000 children safeguarded, the National Crime Agency estimates.
The Home Secretary added: "Tech companies like Facebook have a responsibility to balance privacy with the safety of the public.
"So far nothing we have seen from Facebook reassures me that their plans for end-to-end encryption will not act as barrier to the identification and pursuit of criminals operating on their platforms.
"Companies cannot operate with impunity where lives and the safety of our children is at stake, and if Mr Zuckerberg really has a credible plan to protect Facebook’s more than two billion users it’s time he let us know what it is," Priti Patel concluded.
IWF CEO Ms Hargreaves said: “The IWF secures the removal of millions of images and videos showing the sexual abuse of children every year from the open internet.
“Initiatives to encrypt more and more everyday internet traffic, whilst important to privacy and security, are catastrophic for sexually abused children whose images are shared and traded online.
“The internet is so woven into our lives that we cannot have a situation which dismisses crimes against children. We need an approach to online privacy and security – something we support – which also prioritises child safety.
“If encryption doesn’t balance all these priorities, online sex offenders will be more able to trade and stockpile their images of sexually abused children, ordinary people could be more exposed to this imagery, and efforts to thwart and deter the offenders will be hampered.”
Open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive Facebook