Tech

Home Office-backed campaign against encryption targets Facebook investors

The UK government plans to target Facebook’s biggest investors, Vanguard Group and BlackRock, with a child safety campaign to stop the social media giant from encrypting its messaging platforms.

A coalition of charities backed by the Interior Ministry is said to be taking action to put pressure on major shareholders and investors in Facebook parent company Meta half a million pounds Promotion by advertising agency M&C Saatchi.

The targeting of tech investors comes as political pressure has mounted on social media giants around the world, from the US and UK to India, to ban government access to encrypted content, including news, photos and videos Enable apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

The UK Home Office has strongly advocated end-to-end encryption of messaging apps, including sending to open letter Signed by the Five Eyes countries, plus Japan and India in October 2020, calling on the tech industry to provide “lawful access” to encrypted communications. They have argued that encryption will make it harder to catch pedophiles and terrorists.

M&C Saatchi confirmed its plans to send a letter to the Vanguard Group and BlackRock in “the next few weeks” on behalf of charities in the coalition, including Barnardo’s and the Marie Collins Foundation.

“The letter will urge investors to ensure that . . . Privacy and child safety don’t have to be a binary choice,” said Lee Davis of M&C Saatchi. “But the kind [end to end encryption] is currently planned to be rolled out – and social media companies have admitted this – they will no longer be able to uncover known child sexual abuse on their platforms.”

The goal is to “leverage” tech investors “to influence companies to reconsider current end-to-end encryption plans,” according to documents published by the financial times. The campaign aims to show investors the “reputational risks and the potential impact on their bottom line.”

the coalitionwhich includes child sexual abuse survivors revealed to be funded by the UK Government in January, ahead of an official launch later this month. The letter to Meta shareholders was written because “there’s only one group they’re going to listen to, and that’s tech investors,” M&C Saatchi’s Davis said. It will include the testimony of an anonymous survivor to “[allow] a survivor to take his side and forestall the privacy lobby,” reads a slide from the presentation.

Civil society activists and others involved in the campaign are concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the Home Office’s involvement, calling it “state-sponsored astroturfing”.

“The Home Office is . . . Using charities as a cover to covertly pressure Facebook’s investors. [It] don’t have to do that,” said Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group. “It can pass legislation on encryption and use state powers through a parliamentary process. The government believes this bill will not win a debate in Parliament, so it’s about investors in a private company instead.”

Meta announced that in 2019 it would integrate the messaging services of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram with an encrypted system, which means that nobody but the sender and the recipient can see the messages sent on the platforms. The company has exposed to pressure from charities since.

Meta referenced a previous statement by Antigone Davis, their global head of security, which said, “We agree on the need for strong security measures that work with encryption and are building these into our plans to roll out encryption worldwide.” will not be completed until 2023.

The Home Office said: “Technology companies must take responsibility for tackling the most serious illegal content on their platforms and protecting their users, including our children.”

It added that it had hired M&C Saatchi to “bring together the many organizations that share our concerns about the impact end-to-end encryption would have on our ability to keep children safe.”

BlackRock and Vanguard Group did not comment.

Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco

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