The Trump administration is planning to urge Facebook to hold off on incorporating end-to-end encryption across its various messaging services until the company can address “public safety” issues with law enforcement agencies around the world.
In an open letter that will be published Friday, Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan joined with U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton in warning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about what they see as the risks to widespread encryption.
“We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity,” the letter, first reported by BuzzFeed News, reads. “Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”
The group argued in the letter that Facebook’s massive platform of public profiles combined with encrypted messaging services could prove useful to criminals like child predators and frustrate law enforcement’s efforts to go after them.
The letter is a significant escalation in the administration’s criticism of encryption technologies and threatens to inflame long-simmering public tensions between the government and Silicon Valley, which sees the technology as an essential privacy protection for users.
A spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement to The Hill that the company believes “people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world.”
“We respect and support the role law enforcement has in keeping people safe,” the spokesperson said. “Ahead of our plans to bring more security and privacy to our messaging apps, we are consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies and devoting new teams and sophisticated technology so we can use all the information available to us to help keep people safe.
“End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. It is increasingly used across the communications industry and in many other important sectors of the economy,” the statement continues. “We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”
Encryption protects messages from surveillance, and companies that use it are unable to access the contents of their users’ messages. Law enforcement officials have criticized the use of the technology over the years because it prevents them from accessing suspects’ communications, even when they have a subpoena.
In the open letter to be published on Friday, the four leaders demanded that Facebook enable “law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format.”
But Silicon Valley and digital rights activists have pushed back on government efforts to create a so-called “back door” for law enforcement access to encrypted messaging services, arguing that it would compromise user privacy and give authoritarian-style surveillance powers to the government.
In a blog post earlier this year, Zuckerberg said that the company would be implementing encryption in all of the private messaging services under its umbrella, though he acknowledged that the company had a responsibility to work with law enforcement.
“On balance, I believe working towards implementing end-to-end encryption for all private communications is the right thing to do,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Messages and calls are some of the most sensitive private conversations people have, and in a world of increasing cyber security threats and heavy-handed government intervention in many countries, people want us to take the extra step to secure their most private data.”