A landmark data access agreement between the UK and the US will allow law enforcement to demand access to criminals’ data from tech firms, though Facebook warns it will not compromise the privacy of billions of users by building “back doors” into WhatsApp and other apps.
The UK-US Bilateral Data Access Agreement is targeted at serious criminals like terrorists and child sexual abusers, and Priti Patel, the home secretary, said it would “dramatically speed up” investigations into such crimes.
“Terrorists and paedophiles continue to exploit the internet to spread their messages of hate, plan attacks on our citizens and target the most vulnerable,” she said.
“As home secretary I am determined to do everything in my power to stop them.”
Previous reports suggested the accord would require social media firms to build “back doors” into messaging apps in order to assist with investigations. This would require firms like Facebook to backtrack on numerous privacy and encryption pledges by redesigning how messages are sent and received.
Security back doors act as secret access portals for technology companies and law enforcement agencies, by creating keys that allow them to decrypt private messages sent by users of the apps.
But a spokesperson for Facebook-owned WhatsApp told The Independent that any suggestion that the treaty would require the messaging app to disclose encrypted messages or build a “back door” is incorrect.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “We believe in the right for people to have a private conversation online. End-to-end encryption helps protect that right and is fundamental to the value we provide to over a billion people every day.
“We oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of our users everywhere.”
The NSPCC described the data access agreement as a “hugely important step forward” in tackling online child abuse, though warned that tech giants need to comply for it to have any impact.
“Facebook’s encryption plans show that when it comes to tackling child abuse, they want to go back to the digital dark ages,” said NSPCC head of child safety Tony Stower.
“It’s an absolute scandal that Facebook are actively choosing to provide offenders with a way to hide in the shadows on their platform, seamlessly able to target, groom and abuse children completely undetected.”