end-to-end encryption, nspcc, facebook, encrypted social media messaging, child protection

End-to-end encryption – does it put children at risk?

By Gemma Raw

With its recent report and roundtable event, the NSPCC has reignited the debate about the potential dangers of encrypted social media messaging. On one side, governments, police forces and social workers are concerned that encryption makes it harder to safeguard children. On the other side, technology companies and campaigners argue for the right to privacy, which they say can't be applied selectively.

The problem is perfectly summed up in the contradiction facing those in social work jobs. End-to-end encryption is good for professional practice because it enables social workers to engage with clients easily but securely. However, from a child protection perspective, encryption can provide a shield for paedophiles and could lead to more online grooming.

Facing the facts

At a recent roundtable event, NSPCC shared new research and analysis about the implications of end-to-end encryption for child protection. Bringing together social care professionals, law enforcement experts and representatives of civil society, the event was addressed by Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose concerns about end-to-end encryption have been widely documented.

In her speech, Ms Patel quoted some disturbing statistics: "Last year alone, US technology companies made 21.4 million referrals of child sexual abuse... at any one time, three quarters of a million individuals across the globe are estimated to be looking to connect with children for sexual purposes online."

Facebook already has private messaging on WhatsApp and is intending to roll it out to Facebook Messenger and Instagram. In a recent statement, they said, "Child exploitation has no place on our platforms and Facebook will continue to lead the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse."

Social media – Upsides and downsides

Few people, including social workers, would dispute the huge benefits children can gain from online activity. However, those benefits come with risks. ONS research from 2019-20 shows that one in six 10 to 15-year-olds had communicated with at least one complete stranger in the past year. One in 10 children reported receiving a sexual message and one in 50 said the person they had communicated with turned out to be much older than they thought they were.

A balanced approach

The debate around end-to-end encryption has become increasingly polarised. However, the NSPCC's latest research shows that the general public favour a more balanced approach, which safeguards children while maximising privacy for all users. That being said, over half believe the ability to detect child abuse images is more important than the right to privacy and only 4% say privacy should be prioritised over safety.

The NSPCC believes that tech firms should strive to achieve a new balance that properly weighs the benefits and risks of end-to-end-encryption, underpinned by legislatory safeguards. Meanwhile Facebook maintains that the full roll-out of encryption on their messaging services is a long-term project and that they're building strong safety measures into their plans. It seems the debate is far from over.

Read the full NSPCC report here.