Facebook Tells AG Barr It Will Not Build Encryption ‘Backdoors’ for Law Enforcement

December 10, 2019 Updated: December 10, 2019

Social media giant Facebook told Attorney General William Barr and other officials that it would not create a “backdoor” for law enforcement in encrypted messaging, arguing that it would risk public safety.

Executives in charge of Messenger and WhatsApp, Stan Chudnovsky and Will Cathcart, wrote a letter to Barr, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf, and top officials from Australia and the UK, declining their request to ensure a way for law enforcement to gain lawful access to user communications when required.

“The ‘backdoor’ access you are demanding for law enforcement would be a gift to criminals, hackers, and repressive regimes, creating a way for them to enter our systems and leaving every person on our platforms more vulnerable to real-life harm,” the letter (pdf) obtained by media outlets read. “It is simply impossible to create such a backdoor for one purpose and not expect others to try and open it.”

“People’s private messages would be less secure and the real winners would be anyone seeking to take advantage of that weakened security,” the letter added.

The Dec. 9 letter comes a day before Apple and Facebook executives appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing on encryption. The letter is also in response to an Oct. 4 open letter addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from Barr and the other officials calling on the social media company to not implement end-to-end encryption because it could impede law enforcement’s ability to intercept communications investigated in criminal matters.

“Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes,” the October letter (pdf) read.

“This puts our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims,” it added.

In an interview at the WSJ CEO Council on Tuesday, Barr said addressing the security risks of implementing encryption in messaging apps is one of the department’s “highest priorities.”

“We have an increasing number of horror stories about how people are dying or being molested or whatever that we cannot get into. We know it’s happening, but we can’t get into the communications,” he said.

Child sex predators are increasingly using sophisticated technological tools to hide their identity and encrypt their communications. The New York Times reported in September that law enforcement received nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million reports worldwide of child sexual exploitation content being shared on Facebook Messenger last year.

The company said in their Community Standards Enforcement Report, November 2019 Edition that it removed about 11.6 million pieces of child nudity and sexual exploitation of children content between July and September, without specifying how many were removed from Messenger.

Follow Janita on Twitter: @janitakan