FBI chief calls Facebook's encryption plans a 'dream come true' for child predators

FBI chief calls Facebook's encryption plans a 'dream come true' for child predators
© Aaron Schwartz

The Trump administration on Friday escalated its attacks on Silicon Valley’s use of encrypted messaging, with the FBI director calling Facebook's plans to implement the technology a “dream come true for predators and child pornographers.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a speech that Facebook’s effort to become a more privacy-focused platform threatens to upend the company’s status as one of law enforcement’s top allies in rooting out child sexual abuse online.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Facebook would transform from the main provider of child exploitation tips to a dream come true for predators and child pornographers, a platform that allows them to find and connect with kids and like minded criminals with little fear of consequences, a lawless space created not by the American people, or their elected officials, but by the owners of one big company,” Wray said.

His comments came at a summit hosted by the Department of Justice, where law enforcement officials warned of what they see as the danger posed by “warrant-proof” encrypted services. The technology allows users to send and receive messages shielded from surveillance, and the contents are inaccessible by the host companies, meaning authorities can’t compel access to them even when equipped with court orders.

Officials are singling out Facebook for its plans to incorporate encryption for all of its various platforms that are used by more than 2 billion people around the world.

Attorney General William BarrBill BarrJustice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report Ousted Manhattan US Attorney Berman to testify before House next week ACLU lawsuit calls on Barr to delay federal execution MORE joined with acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and his counterparts in the United Kingdom and Australia to call on Facebook to hold off on those plans until the company can satisfy their concerns and enable law enforcement to access the private communications of suspects.

“We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity,” the government officials wrote in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Facebook to launch Fourth of July voter registration drive Hillicon Valley: Facebook claims it 'does not profit from hate' in open letter | Analysis finds most of Facebook's top advertisers have not joined boycott | Research finds Uighurs targeted by Chinese spyware as part of surveillance campaign MORE this week. “Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”

Asked for a response to Wray’s comments, a Facebook spokesman pointed to a statement the company issued in response to Barr’s letter.

“We respect and support the role law enforcement has in keeping people safe. Ahead of our plans to bring more security and privacy to our messaging apps, we are consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies and devoting new teams and sophisticated technology so we can use all the information available to us to help keep people safe,” Facebook said.

“End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. It is increasingly used across the communications industry and in many other important sectors of the economy," the company added. "We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”

Silicon Valley and privacy activists have pushed back on efforts to give law enforcement “backdoor” access, saying it would open up dissidents, journalists and whistleblowers to expansive government surveillance.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks MORE (D-Ore.) said Friday that backdoor access would disrupt everyday technologies used by consumers.

"If William Barr and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report MORE succeed in putting backdoors into American encryption, every single American will be less safe," Wyden said in a statement. "Nearly every aspect of our lives depends on the defense of strong encryption – our home devices, location tracking, microphones and cameras on our phones, bank accounts, and on and on."

Wray and other Trump officials have been dismissive of those arguments.

“We all want safe, secure, private data, but we also want safe and secure communities,” Wray said. “And we can have both. I really do believe that.”

Emily Birnbaum contributed.

Updated at 11:24 a.m.