ISPCC warns Facebook's messaging encryption could render child abuse detection 'useless'

Children's charity chief said while end-to-end encryption can be positive for privacy, it can place children at significant risk
ISPCC warns Facebook's messaging encryption could render child abuse detection 'useless'

ISPCC, which runs the Childline service, said Facebook's plans for end-to-end encryption on Messenger and Instagram could render its existing tools to detect child abuse imagery 'useless'. File picture: AP/Thibault Camus

A leading children’s charity has raised fears that plans by Facebook to install end-to-end encryption on its private messaging service and on Instagram will render its existing tools to detect child abuse imagery “useless”.

The ISPCC, which runs the Childline service, said major technology corporations currently use a range of tools to identify child abuse imagery as well as child grooming and sexual abuse on online platforms.

The charity took part in a discussion with its sister body in Britain, the NSPCC, which was warning that “private messaging is the frontline of child sexual abuse” online.

ISPCC chief executive John Church said the meeting was called amid fears that Facebook’s proposals to install end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger and Instagram would render these tools useless.

“Children have a right to be safe online, just as they do offline,” Mr Church said. “We know from the children and young people who turn to Childline, however, that they can face potential risks and dangers, particularly when it comes to private messaging communications.” 

He said while end-to-end encryption can be positive for privacy, it can place children at significant risk.

Of the record 21.7m child abuse referrals reported by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020, 93% came from Facebook platforms.” 

“On the one hand, Facebook is to be commended for the level of detection and reporting it carries out. However, should these services be encrypted and the tools no longer used, the abuse does not stop, it is just no longer being detected.” 

Mr Church asked what would happen to the children in these images and to the children who are being groomed: “Encryption is important, as too are the tools that detect child abuse and protect children online.

“A concerted effort is required by all to understand how these two can co-exist. We look forward to playing our part in advocating for further engagement on this child safety online issue.”

He said online safety legislation was passing through parliaments in Ireland and Britain.

He said the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill was being examined by the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, but that it did not plan to have encrypted services within the scope of the proposed Online Safety Commissioner.

In a statement, a Facebook Ireland spokesperson said: “Child exploitation has no place on our platforms and Facebook will continue to lead the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse. 

"End-to-end encryption is already the leading security technology used by many services to keep people safe from hackers and criminals. Its full rollout on our messaging services is a long-term project and we are building strong safety measures into our plans."

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