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Children's charity calls for debate on how private messaging is encrypted

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Private messaging remains a threat to children

Private messaging is the frontline of child sexual abuse online, a leading charity has warned, as is calling for a debate on how encryption is used.

The NSPCC is calling for an urgent debate on end-to-end encryption as polling shows the Scottish public support for safer ways for children to communicate.

An NSPCC/YouGov survey found 29% of adults in Scotland support using end-to-end encryption on social media and messaging services, but this jumps to 59% if it was rolled out only if and when tech firms can ensure children's safety is protected. A total of 183 adults in Scotland were surveyed between 31 December 2020 and 4 January 2021.

Major tech firms currently use a range of technology to identify child abuse images and detect grooming and sexual abuse in private messages.

But there are fears that Facebook’s proposals to end-to-end encrypt Facebook Messenger and Instagram would render these tools useless, with estimates that 70% of global child abuse reports could be lost.

In 2018 these reports resulted in 2,500 arrests and 3,000 children being safeguarded in the UK.

The charity is calling for an urgent reset of the debate around end-to-end encryption which they say has increasingly become an ‘either or’ argument skewed in favour of adult privacy over the safety and privacy rights of children.

Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “Private messaging is the frontline of child sexual abuse but the current debate around end-to-end encryption risks leaving children unprotected where there is most harm.

“The public want an end to rhetoric that heats up the issue but shines little light on a solution, so it’s in firms’ interests to find a fix that allows them to continue to use tech to disrupt abuse in an end-to-end encrypted world.

“We need a coordinated response across society, but ultimately the UK Government must be the guardrail that protects child users if tech companies choose to put them at risk with dangerous design choices.”

A re-set debate should focus on demonstrating the impact that end-to-end encryption will have on engineering away platforms’ ability to find abuse in private messaging, and how this can be avoided.

The current debate predominantly focuses on the impact of end-to-end encryption for law enforcement, which emphasises the investigation of abuse after it has already taken place – rather than focussing on the loss of platforms’ ability to detect and disrupt abuse much earlier. 



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