Social media shouldn't be a 'sanctuary city' for child pornographers

Social media shouldn't be a 'sanctuary city' for child pornographers
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Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats duke it out during Nevada debate On The Money: GAO to investigate Trump aid for farmers | Bloomberg calls for bolstering Dodd-Frank | Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Soros: Zuckerberg, Sandberg should be removed from control of Facebook MORE’s social-media mosh pit of everything “me” is about to extend what is referred to as “end-to-end” encryption to Facebook and Instagram users. The good news is that this will provide welcome security to the law-abiding. The bad news is that it provides a gold mine of security for the law-breaking.  

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI have grave concerns about this development since, to date, Zuckerberg and Facebook have indicated an unwillingness to cooperate in work-arounds that would preserve court-ordered access to those committing crimes via Facebook’s platforms.

To be sure, Facebook normally would not be held responsible for crimes enabled by its platform, any more than Verizon is held responsible for telemarketing scams or other crimes committed over the phone. However, Verizon and other telecommunications companies routinely cooperate with court-ordered lawful interceptions of criminal telephone calls. Facebook says it soon won’t be able to do so.

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The reason for this pivots on who controls the “keys” for end-to-end encryption. Without nerding out, understand that encryption requires a key that unlocks the gobbledegook and enables approved users to read what was encrypted in plain text. Facebook wants to hand the keys over to the user and not keep a copy. Thus, it is able to wash its hands and claim no ability to access encrypted activity on its platform.

The DOJ and FBI are requesting a compromise in which Facebook maintains a copy of the keys or provides a copy to a neutral, trusted third party that can receive and vet court-ordered subpoenas and search warrants that need access to real bad guys. (Don’t worry, Heather and Jason’s totally awesome prom date postings remain hidden from government eyes.)  

So what actually will be lost if Facebook implements this capability? While jihadis, fraudsters and gangbangers have used Facebook to advance their interests and abilities to commit crimes, DOJ has correctly focused on the primary abusers of Zuckerberg’s playground.

We refer to them, too politely, as child pornographers or child exploiters. This glosses over the horridness of what’s going on. The next few paragraphs describe with some clarity what the FBI and law enforcement see on a daily basis. It is not for the squeamish, so fair warning. But this is what will be lost if Facebook implements its plan — and Americans deserve to fully comprehend the impact.

Facebook and Instagram are being exploited by evil men in three main ways. First, they provide a treasure trove of candid images of millions of children. Understand this, parents: When you post an image of your child on the internet, you lose control of it. It is a hunting ground, refreshing daily, for the disgusting among us.

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Images of your adorable 7-year-old daughter, niece or granddaughter are available to be randomly harvested by a child pornographer, manipulated via the marvels of modern software into an image of nudity, and then traded among a community of evil men for their own barbarous gratification. This is routinely done.

Second, men who have direct access to children from infants to pre-pubescents — sicko dads, boyfriends, uncles, neighbors, even nanny boyfriends — will use their smartphones to anonymously video record their savage rape and molestation of babies and toddlers. 

This special group of hell-bound men will seek out children specifically under 5 years old, mainly because they’re too young to recount what happened to them. This is torture, an intensively painful and terrifying experience for these young innocents. But capturing the child’s tormented reaction on video is part of the perverted objective. These videos are then traded among this ghastly community via platforms such as Facebook.

Third, Facebook reaches to the fingertips of many adolescents and young teens on their mobile devices who are targeted by what law enforcement calls “travelers” — men who travel to meet children they have befriended online, in order to have coerced sex with them. Others will simply extort the child for nude images.

For perspective, the FBI and U.S. Postal Service had essentially eradicated child pornography in this country by the 1980s. Then along came the commercial internet and a new, more anonymous trading pathway was created.  

And so now it’s a wildfire, by no means an inconsequential subset of victims who can be sacrificed to some imagined higher value of unassailable encryption for the law-abiding masses. Facebook has become the prime vector of this wildfire and, to its credit, has referred — up until now — 90 percent of the 18 million suspicious reports of child endangerment that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives every year. That’s right, 18 million. Per year. That will largely go away if Facebook follows through on its plan.

In the late 1990s, the FBI launched an undercover operation known as “Innocent Images,” targeting those who sexually exploit and harm children. It is the only FBI undercover operation publicly acknowledged. Its investigative techniques are widely known.  

The FBI doesn’t have to hide all of this because, every year, they arrest thousands of people, mostly men, who exploit and violate children. From plumbers to politicians, from construction workers to clergy of all denominations, from bankers and attorneys to doctors, from millennials to boomers, it is widespread and growing. 

Without Facebook’s cooperation, end-to-end encryption will significantly cripple law enforcement’s ability to combat this evil, expanding swath of society. Facebook, and a horde of so-called civil liberties advocates who would have us sacrifice child torture for adult privacy, maintain that the government shouldn’t be provided with a “back door” by communications platforms. Call it a back door, front door, trap door, it doesn’t matter. Don’t think for a second that the government hasn’t ensured “back doors” in other situations it deems of national importance.  

For example, the technology exists today to totally encrypt and anonymize business payroll payments to employees and subsequent banking and investment actions that employees may take. But that would cripple the ability to tax, and so the government won’t allow it.

We are not allowed to travel along a roadway without a license plate on our cars, mainly because a few violate the law with their cars while the vast majority of us do not. That license plate is a back door for law enforcement.

China most certainly will not allow Facebook to encrypt Chinese citizens’ Facebook postings. Will Facebook cooperate with China but not with the U.S.?

Facebook has enjoyed a unique, favored position in society. Its services are free, largely untaxed and unregulated. This has resulted in immense wealth for its founder and stockholders. They have a good-citizenship responsibility to cooperate against this heinous, growing attack on our youngest. If they refuse, more and more children will be sexually abused and their tormentors will have greater assurance of never being caught. If they refuse, their cooperation should be compelled through legislation.  

FBI Director Christopher Wray rightly points out that Facebook should not be demonized in this discussion. The demonic behavior clearly rests within the malevolent souls of the child abusers. But Facebook is a primary conduit for this evil and is on the cusp of essentially creating a virtual “sanctuary city” for the despicable worst-of-the-worst in our society. It should not be Facebook’s decision alone to make.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.