Oct 4, 2019

U.S., allies fire up encryption fight with Facebook

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The U.S., along with the U.K. and Australia, has sent a letter to Facebook asking it to halt implementation of end-to-end encryption tech in its services, in order to keep messages accessible to law enforcement.

Why it matters: The request marks the latest twist in a long-running debate over encryption, with some arguing for government backdoors and others maintaining that there is no way to provide them without compromising security and privacy.

  • Facebook's move to encrypt Messenger and Instagram messages would significantly expand the proportion of all messaging that is encrypted, but Facebook's WhatsApp and Apple's iMessage are already encrypted from end to end.

The big picture: Facebook's pivot to encrypted messaging, announced last winter, is raising tons of questions, from how the company will make money to how to combat child pornography, human trafficking and cybercrime.

Asked about the issue at an employee Q&A Thursday (which Facebook broadcast publicly), CEO Mark Zuckerberg said one reason the company announced the move toward encrypted messaging years ahead of actually doing so was to consult with law enforcement and child safety groups on how best to mitigate potential harms.

  • "I still think that the equities are generally in favor of moving towards end-to-end encryption," Zuckerberg said.

What they're saying:

  • U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel: "So far nothing we have seen from Facebook reassures me that their plans for end-to-end encryption will not act as a barrier to the identification and pursuit of criminals operating on their platforms. Companies cannot operate with impunity where lives and the safety of our children is at stake, and if Mr. Zuckerberg really has a credible plan to protect Facebook’s more than 2 billion users it’s time he let us know what it is."
  • Facebook: A spokesperson said the company believes "people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world," and noted that more than 1 billion people send encrypted messages every day. The company's statement added that it respects the role of law enforcement and noted that it is "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."
  • ACLU senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani: “When a door opens for the United States, Australia, or Britain, it also opens for North Korea, Iran, and hackers that want to steal our information. Companies should resist these repeated attempts to weaken encryption that reliably protects consumers' sensitive data from identity thieves, credit card fraud, and human rights abusers.”

History lesson: The FBI got into a huge fight with Apple in 2016 after the company refused to rewrite iOS to make it easier for the government to crack the encrypted phone of the San Bernardino shooting suspect. The conflict never really got resolved, as the FBI found another way in.

Go deeper

DOJ's latest case against encryption: It helps child predators

The Justice Department's latest arguments against encryption, presented at a summit in Washington Friday, focus on child predators and take aim at only certain kinds of data.

Why it matters: This isn't the first salvo in the encryption debate — it wasn't even the first last week — but it does show how Attorney General William Barr plans to make the case for "back doors" in encryption, a case law enforcement agencies have tried and failed to win since the 1990s.

Go deeperArrowOct 8, 2019

The Justice Department just made the encryption debate harder to solve

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Experts fear that the Department of Justice's latest argument against warrant-proof encryption, which emphasizes protecting children and focuses on the use of encrypted messengers, may make it harder than ever to resolve the encryption debate.

The big picture: The DOJ's new plea for extraordinary access to encrypted data, put forward at a summit last week, moves the debate toward systems that are harder to secure and uses cases that are exponentially costlier to address.

Go deeperArrowOct 10, 2019

Mark Zuckerberg assailed from all directions in Hill marathon

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More than 50 members of Congress barraged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from all directions at a six-hour House Financial Services Committee hearing on Wednesday that ranged far afield from its ostensible topic — Facebook's cryptocurrency project, Libra.

Driving the news: Instead, Wednesday's hearing focused on Facebook's handling of discrimination and civil rights and its lack of diversity, its role in elections, free speech and content moderation, monopolistic behavior, anonymity, terrorism, child sexual abuse, and more.

Go deeperArrowOct 23, 2019