Peter Griffin, Editor. 23 November 2021, 10:34 am
It was touted by Mark Zuckerberg two years ago as a win for Instagram and Facebook Messenger users – encrypting the messaging apps so no third party could spy on their private conversations.
It also served a practical purpose for Facebook as it tried to lessen its focus on the Facebook newsfeed and pivot towards less-problematic conversations between friends. If not even Facebook could see what messages you were sending, it would be able to wash its hands of responsibility for what was happening on its platform.
Fast-forward to 2021 and a lot has changed. Facebook is now Meta, the Facebook Papers leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen has mired the company in its most damaging scandal yet and Meta faces antitrust action in the US and elsewhere.
Now Meta is delaying its encryption plans to 2023. The real question is whether it will ever follow through on its plans to introduce end to end encryption, which already exists on Meta’s WhatsApp platform.
Here’s Meta’s problem – its messaging platforms already play host to massive child sex abuse images. Child protection groups and law enforcement agencies all over the world have persuasively argued that encrypting Facebook Messenger and Instagram will only serve to help sex offenders hide their tracks.
The UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children recently sent freedom of information requests to 46 police forces across England, Wales and Scotland, asking for them to identify the key platforms used to commit sexual offences against children.
Of the 9,470 incidents of child sex image trading and other offences reported by the police forces, 52% took place on Meta-owned platforms. Over a third of them took place on Instagram, while Facebook and Messenger accounted for 13% of them. Very few related to Whatsapp, suggesting the encryption made it harder to identify alleged offenders.
Meta says it wants to get encryption right so will take more time to consult with child safety advocates and law enforcement agencies. But it knows that the UK and US governments, in particular, have been hostile towards encryption. They see it as a barrier to fighting serious crimes like terrorism, drug and sex trafficking.
Global head of safety at Meta, Antigone Davis, wrote in the Telegraph that when Meta does introduce encryption, it will “prevent harm by using proactive detection technology that looks for suspicious patterns of activity and takes action on concerning accounts”.
It would also give users more controls to manage who they speak to on messaging apps and encourage people to report harmful messages.
“Even with billions of people already benefiting from end-to-end encryption, there is more data than ever for the police to use to investigate and prosecute criminals, including phone numbers, email addresses, and location data,” she wrote.
It’s the metadata, rather than the data themselves that are useful to law enforcement agencies, she argues.
Encryption good, Meta encryption bad?
There may be some truth to that but Meta has an uphill battle on its hands to get end to end encryption over the line. It has already been shown to ignore evidence of arm in favour of growing its business. Frances Haugen is actually an advocate of end to end encryption. But she doesn’t think we can trust Meta to apply it responsibly to Facebook and Instagram.
“Facebook’s plan for end-to-end encryption – I think – is concerning because we have no idea what they’re doing to do,” she said last month while giving testimony to the UK Parliament.
“We don’t know what it means, we don’t if people’s privacy is actually protected. It’s super nuanced and it’s also a different context. On the open-source end-to-end encryption product that I like to use there is no directory where you can find 14-year-olds, there is no directory where you can go and find the Uighur community in Bangkok. On Facebook, it is trivially easy to access vulnerable populations and there are national state actors that are doing this.”
There are lots of encrypted apps available, from Signal and Telegram to Apple iMessage and Facebook’s Own WhatsApp, which has always existed as separate to Meta’s other social platforms – which is why it has a popular following among Facebook’s own critics. But those apps aren’t intertwined with the Meta business model, the attention industry that has produced perverse outcomes for millions of people.
Zuckerberg was intent on making Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp messaging all interoperable and fully encrypted. Those plans could now be in doubt, not because of encryption’s ability to make conversations go dark, but because of Meta’s track record. With Meta facing strong government scrutiny and ongoing questions about its trustworthiness as it seeks to build out the metaverse, end to end encryption may be a bridge too far – even for someone as single-minded as Zuckerberg.