Social media encryption now 'biggest challenge' to keeping children safe online, global watchdog warns

Mike Wright
Baroness Shields warned user privacy was not a 'justification' for putting children at greater risk - PA

The encryption of social media sites is giving paedophiles “protective cover” to target children undetected, an international child safety watchdog has warned.

WeProtect, an online safety coalition led by the UK and made up of more than 80 governments, said that encrypting on popular was making would make it harder to catch abusers grooming children online.

Baroness Joanna Shields, a former UK online safety minister who founded WeProtect, said that encryption was now the “biggest challenge” law enforcement and governments faced to keeping children safe online.

She also warned tech companies that improving privacy for users was not a “justification” for putting children at greater risk.

The warning comes as Facebook is facing increased condemnation over plans to encrypt is one billion-user Messenger service.

This week, WeProtect launched its annual Global Threat Assessment report, looking at the emerging dangers to children online.

The report said there was a growing threat to children as an estimated 1.8 million more men with a sexual interest in minors are using the internet compared to a year ago.

It warned that social media gave paedophiles “direct access” to children, which it said had led to “significant increases in online grooming, black mail and extortion.”

However, it said social media and messaging sites’ move towards encryption meant it would make it far harder for tech giants to detect abuse being perpetrated on their sites.

It highlighted that last year US tech companies reported over 45 million child abuse photos caught on their sites by internal scanning software.

Baroness Shields, who served as the UKs Minister for Internet Safety and Security between 2015 and 2017, said: “Encryption is currently the biggest challenge we’re facing in the fight against online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The same principles of scale and ubiquity that make internet companies and their products so powerful are being leveraged to exploit and abuse children en masse. 

“We all understand that encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but this is not a justification for allowing paedophiles the protective cover to go undetected and unpunished. It is making it far too easy for perpetrators to hide their crimes, and continue harming millions of children globally. 

“As technology increases the threat and gives offenders even more opportunities to groom children, share explicit images and live-stream sexual abuse, the need for stronger, more coordinated global action is all the more urgent.” 

A number of major messaging apps such as Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage are already encrypted.

Earlier this year Facebook announced it would be encrypting its Messenger service as part of plans to become a more “privacy-focused” social network.

At the time of the announcement, the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said encrypting the service would mean even Facebook would be unable to see what is being sent in its messages.

In October, the Home Secretary Priti Patel wrote to Mr Zuckerberg saying encrypting Messenger would create a “blindspot” where paedophiles and terrorists will be able to hide their “despicable” crimes.

Last week, the NSPCC also warned the plan would turn Facebook into a “one-stop grooming shop” as figures from police showed almost half of online child sex crimes took place on the company's apps.

Yesterday, Facebook rejected calls from the UK and US governments to build a “back door” into its encryption, saying it would be exploited by hackers and authoritarian regimes.

Ernie Allen, the chairman of WeProtect, added:  “End-to-end encryption does not just protect good people doing good things, it also protects bad people doing bad things. 

“We embrace the goal of maximizing individual privacy, which we agree is vital in this digital age.  

“But we would argue that such privacy cannot be absolute.  There is need for balance in the approach. For example, where is the concern for the privacy of the children being sexually assaulted and photographed whose images are then disseminated worldwide?”

Other trends highlighted by the WeProtect report included a growing demand for abuse material online, which was underscored by the fact Interpol uncovered one website that was receiving on average 4.6 million views a month.

The organisation also found that offenders were developing more sophisticated techniques to hide in plain sight, such as websites that seemed normal but ‘unlocked’ abuse material if users first visited via a certain sequence of other websites.

The report highlighted the rise of live-streamed ‘abuse to order’ videos, where rich abusers in developed countries paid for children to be abused on camera in developing countries, such as the Philippines. It said such videos could be bought for as little as €10  (£8.40).