UK gov could block Facebook plans for end-to-end encryption

A shadowy figure using a smartphone in front of the Facebook logo

The UK government may prevent Facebook from applying an encryption protocol to its services that could hide child abuse across the platform.

The notice, reported by Sky News, would force the social network to use a weaker form of encryption to protect user messages, but crucially allow it to monitor and provide decrypted conversations to law enforcement agencies.

It is also reported that the government will not be asking for Facebook to provide a way to access encrypted messages on WhatsApp, despite having the legal powers to do so. Sources with direct knowledge of discussions between Facebook and the government told Sky News that the legislation, known as a Technical Capability Notice (TCN), wasn't used as there is no known mechanism that exists to bypass the encryption protocols used on WhatsApp.

This is seen as a key legal test of the TCN legislation as it must be "reasonably practicable" for the communication provider, in this case, Facebook, to comply with the order. However, the social network uses the Signal protocol which has been designed to ensure third-parties cannot access the message content.

There are growing concerns regarding the Signal protocol, particularly as Facebook's plans to employ it across its services have reportedly been back by the US government.

Facebook declined to comment on the alleged meetings, but it provided a statement it released in response to a report from the Children's Commission which expressed concern with the company's encryption plans.

"Facebook has led the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect, and respond to abuse and we will continue to work with law enforcement to combat criminal activity," a spokesperson said.

"End-to-end encryption is already the leading technology used by many services to keep people safe and, when we roll it out on our other messaging services, we will build on our strong anti-abuse capabilities at WhatsApp."

The social network was backed by the Open Rights Group, which hit out at the government for attempting to tackle crime at the expense of privacy. The organisation's executive director Jim Killock called encryption a vital tool that helps people protect their personal messages.

"People are entitled to their privacy," Killock said in a statement. "If the government seeks to ban encryption on Facebook Messenger, it will signal to the world the UK no longer respects personal privacy and security.

"There are legitimate concerns about investigating crime, but the government should not facilitate crime by making personal security harder."

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognise him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.