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Law Enforcement Officials Try To Warn Facebook Off Its Encryption Plans

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks Friday at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., during a summit on warrant-proof encryption and its impact on child exploitation cases.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks Friday at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., during a summit on warrant-proof encryption and its impact on child exploitation cases.

The Justice Department is asking that Facebook hold off on its plans to fully encrypt its messaging services. In an open letter to the company's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, federal law enforcement officials and their counterparts in the U.K. and Australia said the end-to-end encryption proposal would block their access to users' communications and interfere with their "ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks."

At a summit Friday at the department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., FBI Director Christopher Wray said court-authorized investigators must be able to view suspects' communications — particularly to protect children from predators who film and disseminate images of sexual abuse.

"If we don't take action and do something soon to address the lawful access problem, it's going to be too late. And we're going to lose the ability to find those kids who need to be rescued, we're going to lose the ability to find the bad guys who need to be arrested and stopped, and we're going to lose the ability to keep some of the most vulnerable people we serve safe from harm," he told the audience. "And we just cannot let that happen."

The fight between federal law enforcement and Facebook stems from Zuckerberg's announcement earlier this year promising a platform focused on privacy above all. That includes steps to lock down the data of its 2 billion users, reduce how long that data is kept, and, in the meantime, prevent the company — and just about anyone else — from snooping on what people share on its services.

"Governments often make unlawful demands for data, and while we push back and fight these requests in court, there's always a risk we'll lose a case," Zuckerberg wrote, "and if the information isn't encrypted, we'd either have to turn over the data or risk our employees being arrested if we failed to comply."

For a company that has been reeling from one scandal to another connected to its privacy policies, including allegations it misused users' personal data, the move to pad its privacy measures seems sensible from both practical and public relations perspectives. Privacy advocates have lauded the decision — and on Friday, they pleaded with Facebook to refuse government requests to create a back door to circumvent the company's proposed encryption.

"We believe they have this entirely backwards: Each day that platforms do not support strong end-to-end security is another day that this data can be breached, mishandled, or otherwise obtained by powerful entities or rogue actors to exploit it," said an open letter signed Friday by dozens of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.

"Given the remarkable reach of Facebook's messaging services," they explained, "ensuring default end-to-end security will provide a substantial boon to worldwide communications freedom, to public safety, and to democratic values, and we urge you to proceed with your plans to encrypt messaging through Facebook products and services."

In Zuckerberg's note, he added a caveat to his promises: "When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion," he said. "We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can."

And in recent days, Justice Department officials have been sure to remind Zuckerberg of this responsibility.

"To those out there who resist the need for lawful access, I would ask: 'OK, what's your solution? How do you propose to ensure that the hardworking men and women of law enforcement, sworn to protect you and your families, actually maintain lawful access to the information they need to do their jobs?' " Wray said.

"There are solutions to be had that enable both strong cybersecurity and lawful access," he added, "and I believe those solutions will be even better if we move forward together."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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