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Are Facebook privacy settings handing a ‘free pass’ to terrorists?

MI5 chief attacks plans to provide end-to-end encryption on social media platform

Terrorists could be given a “free pass” by Facebook if the social media giant follows through on plans to introduce stronger encryption on its network, the head of MI5 has claimed. 

In his first public interview, UK spy boss Ken McCallum said plans proposed by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg would allow terrorists to plot attacks on the company’s platforms, while Facebook blocked hundreds of counter-terrorism investigations by security services. 

Speaking to Times Radio, McCallum acknowledged the need for user privacy after Facebook expressed its intention to move away from its function as a digital “public square”, and instead become more like a user’s online “living room”. But the director general added that MI5’s job is to “deal with a one in a million case, where the living room is a terrorist living room”.

Facebook’s encryption plans mean it will no longer use algorithms to flag illegal content as messages can be viewed only by the sender and receiver. The company argues that it should be able to pass on suspicious content if security services obtain permission from the home secretary and a judge.

The MI5 head stressed security services were “not in any way seeking some form of surveillance state”, but emphasised there were “rare” occasions when it was essential security services could gain access to the contents of messages sent by those suspected of participating in illegal activities if there were concerns of “very substantial proportions”.

Decisions taken in “California boardrooms” by Facebook executives are “every bit as relevant” to security services’ ability to do their jobs “as decisions taken in Afghanistan or Syria”, he told Times Radio.

Facebook argues its end-to-end encryption will provide additional safety and security to its users, arguing it is “building strong safety measures” into the plans “including using information like behavioural patterns and user reports” to identify criminal activity.

McCallum’s criticism of Facebook’s encryption plans comes weeks after Home Secretary Priti Patel warned the idea could jeopardise work to combat child sexual abuse. Patel said Facebook “intends to blind itself” to the proliferation of child sexual abuse images on its platforms by preventing access to messaging content from outside parties, says the BBC

But supporters of encryption argue that any “legally enforced” weakening of encryption algorithms could potentially be exploited by criminals.

Jenny Afia, from legal firm Schillings, said end-to-end encryption had “already prevented a lot of crime”, while Jim Killock, from Open Rights Group, said encryption was “popular” with those who want “security and protection from fraud, scams and abuse of their data”. 

"It would be completely unreasonable to ban or limit everyday security for one set of people over the other,” he said. 

Other encryption supporters told the BBC it provides a “secure means of communication” for “dissidents and whistleblowers” and could put them at risk if back-door access were made available to governments. 

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