Say you invented something that became so popular that more than a billion people around the globe used it. Wow! You’d be famous worldwide and one of the richest people on Earth.
But then, say you discovered that some of your customers were criminals using your product in nefarious ways. Terrorists were using it to communicate deadly plots among themselves. Con men were using it to scam millions of dollars from unsuspecting and vulnerable people. Child predators were using your invention to transmit horrific child pornography. What would your obligation be if law enforcement came knocking at your door asking to see information about your suspect customers?
This scenario is currently playing out between the U.S. Department of Justice and Facebook’s massively popular subsidiary WhatsApp. The developers brag that the app enables customers to “make calls and send and receive messages, documents, photos and videos” directly from their phone or desktop computer that will remain strictly secret. It is advertised as having “sought-after services like end-to-end encryption, free Internet-based international calling, cross-platform compatibility, (and) wide global reach.”
In layman’s terms, encryption means that all communications, whether sent from next door or the other side of the world, can be seen only by the sender and the receiver. There is no so-called “back door” for law enforcement to enter to look for evidence of criminal wrongdoings.
Let’s go hypothetical again. Say Sam Smith is sitting at his laptop in Toledo, Ohio, sending out videos of child pornography he’s just made. The police suspect him of trafficking in child porn, but Smith is crafty. He’s transmitting his filth via WhatsApp. Police cannot access his account to prove their case. They have to go through legal channels and ask the company for help. It has taken some tech companies up to two years to answer a police request for a suspect’s account information. A delay of weeks and months is not unusual. Imagine the damage a criminal could do in the meantime.
While Facebook and other social media companies say they have ways to detect such imagery and remove them from encrypted accounts, honestly, what good does that do in the long run? The images are erased, but the sick mind that sent them out remains at large.
WhatsApp is just one of the services Facebook offers, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he wants to offer end-to-end encryption on all of his creations.
“The future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever,” Zuckerberg announced earlier this year. Facebook’s Messenger chat service now allows users to contact each other via private messages, but they’re not encrypted. They soon will be, if Zuckerberg gets his wish.
Great. More Internet pathways for criminals to access to further their illegal ways.
I wonder what the folks at social media companies such as Facebook, Google and YouTube thought when they read the shocking New York Times article that recently revealed that tech companies reported more than 45 million online photos and videos of children and infants being sexually abused last year. Forty-five million images is more than double what was discovered the year before. As the Times reported: “In some sense, increased detection of the spiraling problem is a sign of progress. Tech companies are legally required to report images of child abuse only when they discover them; they are not required to look for them.”
It’s not just child predators we need to consider when thinking about the downside of widespread encryption. As I recently reported, the FBI figures that $50 million is lost every year to online romance scams, which mostly target lonely and elderly people. And terrorists use the Internet as a strategic device in many ways. They turn to the worldwide web to recruit and train new members, to collect and transfer money, to incite violence and to organize future terrorist attacks. To allow the tech companies to deliberately tie the hands of intelligence agencies and cybercrime detectives makes no sense.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr, along with officials from Britain and Australia, has written a letter asking Facebook’s Zuckerberg to rethink his plan to expand the use of sophisticated encryption. The letter acknowledges law-abiding citizens’ right to privacy protection but argues that that right needs to be balanced with law enforcement agencies’ “ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.” Barr also made it clear that Facebook should figure out a way to quickly respond to police if a judge has issued a warrant.
As of this writing, there has been no answer from Zuckerberg, a married father of two. I wonder what his wife thinks about her husband’s company and its less than effective efforts to curb child predators and other criminals.
It comes down to an issue of individual privacy versus the greater good, but it’s clear that protecting kids should come first.
— Diane Dimond is the author of three books, including Be Careful Who You Love Inside the Michael Jackson Case, which is now updated with new chapters and is available as an audiobook. Contact her at [email protected], or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.