Facebook has directly rejected an Australian Government request for the social media giant to halt plans to introduce end-to-end encryption to all its messaging services.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, along with his US and UK counterparts, wrote to Facebook in October calling on Facebook to halt its encryption plans until it could ensure there was no reduction to user safety and and that the company include “a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens”.
In the letter, the politicians said that by not providing access to the encrypted communications Facebook was hindering law enforcements’ ability to “stop criminals and abusers in their tracks”, mirroring the debate that occurred in Australia with the Assistance and Access Act.
In response, WhatsApp head Will Cathcart and Messenger boss Stan Chudnovsky rejected the proposal and committed to going ahead with the encryption plan. They said doing otherwise would create a “backdoor” allowing access to nefarious actors.
“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 platform more vulnerable to real-life harm,” Mr Cathcard and Mr Chudnovsky said in the letter.
“It is simply impossible to create such a backdoor for one purpose and not expect others to try to open it,” they said.
“People’s private messages would be less secure and the real winners would be anyone seeking to take advantage of that weakened security. That is not something we are prepared to do.”
The letter was released on the day Facebook and Apple executives testified before a US Senate hearing on encryption.
In his opening statement, Messenger director of product management for privacy and integrity Jay Sullivan reaffirmed Facebook’s commitment to encrypt communications on Messenger and Instagram in-line with WhatsApp.
“We can be certain that if we build a backdoor for the US government, other governments, including repressive and authoritarian regimes around the world, will demand access or try to gain it clandestinely, including to persecute dissidents, journalists and their political opponents,” Mr Sullivan told the Senate hearing.
“Preserving the prominence of American values online requires strong protections for privacy and security, including strong encryption.”
At the Senate hearing, Democrats and Republicans attacked Facebook for its encryption stance, with several Senators threatening to regulate the use of the technology.
“You’re going to find a way to do this or we’re going to go do it for you. We’re not going to live in a world where a bunch of child abusers have a safe haven to practice their craft. Period. End of discussion,” Senator Lindsey Graham.
Australia already has laws giving the power to government agencies and law enforcement to compel tech companies like Facebook to provide access to encrypted data.
The highly controversial legislation was passed at the end of last year with the support of Labor, but the Opposition is now attempting to amend the laws to “repair” the bill.