Facebook’s End-to-End Encryption Plans and Their Role in the Online Child Sexual Abuse Epidemic

October 16, 2019

According to a report on online child sexual abuse, rates of online child abuse and exploitation have increased exponentially in the past few years. Online child abuse and exploitation can take on many forms, but the most prevalent types of these cybercrimes are the sexual solicitation of minors and the sharing of sexually explicit photos of minors.

There is a common misconception that online child sexual abuse only occurs in the dark, deep web online. However, the child sexual exploitation market may be a little closer than we realize. Just last year, Facebook made 16.8 million reports to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) which accounted for 90% of the total reports of child sexual exploitation made. Facebook’s reporting of suspicious activity, solicitation of minors, and explicit photo sharing of minors via their website has played a key role in online child sexual abuse prevention.

However, on March 19, 2019, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, announced plans to move Facebook Messenger toward a more secure, private messaging system. The shift includes end-to-end encryption for the platform, which prevents anyone—including Facebook—from having access to the messages. Zuckerberg maintains that the drive behind the transition to encryption is Facebook user’s privacy and security.

End-to-end encryption of messaging platforms has many benefits to users. Because data breaches are becoming more and more common, users are demanding a more private form of communication and assurance that their data will be protected. These users are worried about any and all forms of data breaches. Breaches including the stealing of trade secrets of a corporation to hacking into personal identification information, such as social security numbers and credit card information. End-to-end encryption, one of the most secure form of encryption, greatly reduces the possibility of a breach. How do we reconcile our need for online protection and privacy with law enforcement’s need for access to prevent the exploitation of millions of children?

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 70% of Facebook’s reporting would be lost with the implementation of end-to-end encryption. However, in his post, Zuckerberg did address Facebook’s continued dedication to online child sexual exploitation prevention. “We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can. We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can’t see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work.”

In response to the Zuckerberg’s plans, the Justice Department, in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on October 4, 2019, pled Facebook not to proceed with its plans to incorporate end-to-end encryption into Facebook Messenger. The DOJ’s main concern is that it has not yet seen any concrete plans for balancing Facebook’s new end-to-end encryption with its commitment to prevention of online child sexual exploitation. The letter urges Facebook not to proceed with any end-to-end encryption plans while also urging the social media site to allow law enforcement access to certain content necessary in the prevention of these types of heinous crimes.   

While Facebook has yet to formally respond to the DOJ’s open letter, Facebook has stated that they “strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”

Although end-to-end encryption is a significant barrier in the fight against online child sexual abuse and exploitation, dismantling encryption entirely would not only leave many Americans vulnerable to data breaches and hackers, but also lead to broader surveillance generally. Where should Facebook, and other similar social media platforms, stand on the issue? Should Facebook continue on its path toward a more secure, private web space? Or continue its work fighting the online abuse and exploitation of children? Is it possible to do both?

Sarah B. Kirschbaum

October 16, 2019