Meta tries to break the deadlock of end-to-end encryption

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After several years With tech companies and police scrambling and squabbling over end-to-end encryption, this week Meta unveiled a new tool in its arsenal that could help the social media giant resist government pressure to change course or weaken its end-to-end encryption plan. through their private communications services.

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Monday Meta published a report about the impact of end-to-end encryption on human rights by Business for Social Responsibility, a non-profit organization dedicated to corporate issues. Meta, which commissioned an independent BSR report, also published his answer. In a study that took more than two years to complete, BSR found that end-to-end encryption is overwhelmingly positive and critical to protecting human rights, but it also explored criminal activity and violent extremism that can find safe haven in Eventually. fully encrypted platforms. Importantly, the report also offers recommendations on how to potentially mitigate these negative impacts.

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Since 2019 Meta said that it will eventually implement end-to-end encryption across all of its messaging platforms. A security measure designed to prevent services from accessing their users’ communications has already long ago deployed on Meta’s WhatsApp platform, but this initiative will also provide protection for Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct Messenger. Meta stated that its delay in fully rolling out end-to-end encryption on these other services is mainly due to technical and compatibility issues, but the company has also experienced criticism about the plan of the government of the USA and other countries of the world in connection with fears that adding this feature will make it more difficult for the company and law enforcement agencies to counter a number of threats, such as child abuse and the distribution of materials about the sexual abuse of children, coordinated disinformation campaigns, viral hate speech, terrorism and violent extremism. The US government and the FBI in particular argued for a long time comprehensive encryption that protects user data equally protects suspects from criminal investigationsthereby endangering the public and National security.

“I am pleased to see that the BSR report confirms the critical role that encryption plays in protecting human rights,” says Riana Pfefferkorn, a research fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory who was not involved in the study. “While unwanted behavior does occur in encrypted contexts, most people are not criminals and everyone needs privacy and security. Weakening encryption is not an option.”

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The question for Meta and privacy advocates around the world was how to develop mechanisms to stop digital abuse before it starts, identify potentially suspicious behavior without gaining access to real user communications, and create mechanisms that allow users to effectively report potentially abusive behavior. Even the most recent attempts to strike a balance have been met with harsh criticism from privacy and encryption advocates.

For example, in August, Apple announced plans to introduce a feature that scan user data locally on their devices for child sexual abuse material. That way, they reasoned, Apple wouldn’t need to access the data directly or compile it in the cloud to check for offensive material. However, researchers have expressed many concerns about the possibility of manipulation and abuse of such a mechanism, as well as the risk that it will not even achieve its goal if the system produces many false positives and false negatives. Within a month, Apple retreatedsaying that he needs time to reevaluate the scheme.

In its report to Meta, BSR disapproved of such “client-side scanning” mechanisms, stating that such an approach ultimately leads to an untenable slippery slope. Instead, BSR recommended that Meta use other mechanisms, such as secure and operational reporting channels for users and analysis of unencrypted metadata, to identify potentially problematic activities without directly scanning communications or access.

“Contrary to popular belief, a lot can actually be done even without access to messages,” says Lindsey Andersen, BSR Deputy Director of Human Rights. “And it’s important to understand that encryption is not just some old technology, it’s a really important tool for advancing human rights, and in that sense it’s unique. I’m not sure we’ve seen something that has as many clear human rights benefits as end-to-end encryption.”

The BSR report includes 45 recommendations, 34 of which Meta has committed to implement. The company says it is partially implementing four more and is conducting further research on six of the remaining recommendations. The company refused to accept one recommendation related to the study of a special type of mathematics known as homomorphic encryption as a means of potentially developing more secure client-side scanning. Meta says that this recommendation should not be implemented as it has concluded that it is not technically feasible.

Meta says that throughout the BSR research process, the company has been driven by results and that its direction is already largely in line with BSR’s proposals. And in early March, the company implemented end-to-end encryption for Instagram messaging in Ukraine and Russia in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The company told WIRED on Monday that it won’t be rolling out security across its messaging services in 2022, but plans to move forward in 2023.

“From a human rights perspective, you understand that there is tension, but it’s not either-or,” says Gail Kent, director of global policy at Meta Messenger. “This is what we hope to show in our product – you don’t have to choose between privacy and security, you can have both. And we clearly know from conversations with users that they expect us to provide both. In messengers or Instagram DMs, they expect to have a trusted space where they can communicate freely without interactions they don’t want.”

After decades of circular circulation on this issue, the dispute will not be resolved by one report. But it doesn’t hurt if the largest social media company on the planet pushes and invests in finding a solution.

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