Meta is “choosing to allow predators to operate with impunity” by rolling out encrypted messaging despite an “epidemic” of child abuse, security minister Tom Tugendhat has said.
He urged the social media giant – which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – to introduce robust safety measures before extending end-to-end encryption to Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct later this year to avoid a “significant risk to child safety”.
The technology, already enabled on WhatsApp, would allow only the sender and recipient of a message to access it, in a security feature to protect personal data and privacy.
But critics including Mr Tugendhat have raised concerns that the feature would prevent Meta from flagging harmful or worrying content to police.
In a speech to the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region’s annual conference on Tuesday, he 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.”
The consequences would be “stark”, the Home Office minister warned.
Facebook and Instagram currently account for more than 80% of global referrals of suspected child abuse to the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), he said, meaning that 20 million cases could go unreported due to encryption.
The US-based NCMEC passes cases on to the UK’s National Crime Agency, contributing to 20,000 criminal investigations across the UK in 2021.
Mr Tugendhat said: “For predators that’s a significant deterrent. And for their victims, it’s a lifeline.
“That lifeline is now under threat.”
The Tory MP for Tonbridge and Malling directly criticised Meta’s chief Mark Zuckerberg, saying “these are his choices”.
“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.”