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

Illustration of encryption as an abstract eye made up of symbols and code
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.