What is encryption? Minister warns Facebook and Instagram against introducing security feature

The Government says encrypting messages creates a significant risk to child safety  (Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels)
The Government says encrypting messages creates a significant risk to child safety (Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels)

The Government will warn parents against allowing children to use Meta apps Facebook and Instagram if the company introduces encrypted messages.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat has urged Meta to avoid a “significant risk to child safety” by introducing safety measures before extending end-to-end encryption to Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct later this year.

In a speech to the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region’s annual conference on Tuesday, Mr Tugendhat said: “Meta will no longer be able to spot grooming … on their platforms, leaving tens of thousands of children in the UK, and around the world, beyond our help and in danger of exploitation.”

So what is encryption and why is the security minister concerned?

What is end-to-end encryption?

Encryption is a security feature that protects users’ privacy by allowing only the people in the conversation to access their messages.

Encryption scrambles data into a code that can only be unscrambled by people who have the decryption key. It takes plain text and scrambles it into “cipher text”, which can only be translated back into the original plain text when it reaches the desired recipient.

It is already used in Meta’s WhatsApp messaging service, which requires users to have each other’s phone numbers before messaging.

Why is the Government concerned about encryption?

There are concerns that introducing encryption to Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct would prevent police and Meta from identifying child abuse.

The security minister said that Facebook and Instagram currently account for more than 80 per cent of global referrals of suspected child abuse to the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children.

He said this means that 20 million cases could go unreported due to encryption.

“It’s not acceptable for tech executives to make vast profits from their youngest users, only to pass the buck when it comes to protecting them from the dangers on their own platform,” Mr Tugendhat said. “Faced with an epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse Meta have decided to turn a blind eye, and are choosing to allow predators to operate with impunity.”

The Times reported that should Meta go ahead with encryption, the Government will issue adverts warning parents that the apps will be unsafe for their children to use.

What is the Government doing about encryption?

The Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill has been criticised by tech companies, which said it could undermine encryption.

WhatsApp was among the messaging platforms that signed a letter calling on the Government to “urgently rethink” the proposed bill.

The co-founder and chief executive of Element, Matt Hodgson, said: “(The Online Safety Bill) is outright dangerous. It’s the cyber equivalent of Britain decommissioning its nuclear deterrent.”

However, the Government reportedly responded by saying: “The Online Safety Bill in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption.”