UK's Privacy Tsar Mounts Fierce Defense of End-to-End Encryption

The UK’s privacy watchdog has defended end-to-end encryption (E2EE) following a government campaign lobbying for a halt to further roll-outs by the likes of Meta.

The publicly funded “No Place to Hide” campaign, backed by several children’s charities, is calling for social media companies to stop implementing E2EE until they can prove children’s safety will not be put at risk as a result.

Meta’s delayed roll-out of the security and privacy-enhancing technology is now slated for 2023 for Messenger and Instagram. Its messaging platform WhatsApp already uses E2EE.

The arguments against the tech are that it blindfolds police and provides a safe haven for pedophiles to groom victims and share sex abuse material.

However, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has argued that multiple techniques and innovative approaches already exist which can help investigators – and that E2EE plays a vital role in protecting children and wider society.

“The discussion on end-to-end encryption use is too unbalanced to make a wise and informed choice. There is too much focus on the costs without also weighing up the significant benefits,” argued the ICO’s executive director for technology and innovation, Stephen Bonner.

“E2EE serves an important role both in safeguarding our privacy and online safety. It strengthens children’s online safety by not allowing criminals and abusers to send them harmful content or access their pictures or location. It is also crucial for businesses, enabling them to share information securely and fosters consumer confidence in digital services.”

Accessing encrypted content is not the only way police can catch offenders, Bonner added.

“Law enforcers have other methods such as listening to reports of those targeted, infiltrating the groups planning these offenses, using evidence from convicted abusers and their systems to identify other offenders,” he argued.

“We are also seeing a range of other techniques and innovations available that can be used without accessing content to help stop abuse or catch those trying to harm. As an example, platforms are listening to teenagers’ reports and limiting search results for anyone attempting unwanted contact.”

The government should be doubling down on support for these approaches and finding new ones, Bonner concluded.

Instead, the government is using taxpayer money to fund its E2EE campaign with help from advertising giant M&C Saatchi.

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