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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Home Secretary Telegraph op-ed on online safety

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Home Secretary Priti Patel

During a visit to Washington DC, Home Secretary Priti Patel last night (Thursday 3 October) signed an historic Agreement that will enable British law enforcement agencies to directly demand electronic data relating to terrorists, child sexual abusers and other serious criminals from US tech firms.

The Home Secretary has also today published an open letter to Facebook, co-signed with US Attorney General William P. Barr, Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, outlining serious concerns with the company’s plans to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services.

Today the Home Secretary, writing in the Telegraph, set out her commitment to keeping people safe online and her concerns with Facebook's plans.

She wrote:

We cannot waste time when it comes to tackling paedophiles and terrorists online. The technological boom over the past two decades has changed the way we live our lives, opening up an array of new opportunities to communicate. But the internet has also been a force for evil, giving terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals a platform to spread hate and prey on the vulnerable.

Countless crimes are committed online every day, with child abusers grooming young children and sharing indecent images, and deranged violent extremists live-streaming their deadly rampages. This threatens populations across the world – with few physical boundaries and the ability to rapidly spread the most appalling content with devastating consequences. The sheer scale of the harmful and illegal content online means the pressure on law enforcement to stay one step ahead of cowardly criminals is greater than ever.

As Home Secretary, I’ve been working with our close allies to give police investigators and intelligence agencies the powers they need to protect the vulnerable and lock up those who do the most harm. In my first week in the role, I hosted a summit of our Five Eyes allies in London, where we confirmed our joint commitment to work with the tech industry to improve the safety of the internet.

The security of our citizens is my number one priority. That is why I flew to Washington DC just hours after the Conservative Party conference to meet US Attorney General William Barr and discuss what more we can do to fight criminals who know no borders. And last night we signed a world-first Bilateral Data Access Agreement with the US that will dramatically speed up criminal investigations. The agreement will mean law enforcement and other agencies can directly demand that communications firms hand over electronic data on terrorists, child abusers and other serious criminals.

This will shorten the current lengthy process of Mutual Legal Assistance which involves requests for data being submitted and approved by the two governments. It can take up to two years for law enforcement to obtain the data, prompting investigators to seek more resource-intensive methods of obtaining alternative evidence or abandoning investigations altogether. The new agreement could reduce this process to a matter of weeks or days.

This means the acceleration of investigations into sickening international paedophiles like Matthew Falder, who was convicted of 137 child abuse offences last year. In Falder’s case, police went through a year-long Mutual Legal Assistance process to obtain evidence to secure his conviction. When it comes to safeguarding children from horrific abuse or foiling a terrorist attack, time is of the essence. It’s unforgivable for investigations to become stalled by red tape or for police to be stonewalled by unaccountable tech firms.

The Government has already announced £30 million of investment to develop new technology that will help us catch the callous child abusers who operate in the shadows of the dark web. But we cannot police our way out of this problem. The social media firms who help spread this vile material cannot be allowed to count their profits while law enforcement agencies clean up the mess they helped to create.

We face very serious challenges where companies apply end-to-end encryption, deliberately designing out their ability, and the ability of our law enforcement agencies, to protect the public. Companies should not design their platforms to create a digital blind spot where paedophiles and terrorists have free rein to conceal their despicable crimes.

This is not about just one firm. But we are particularly concerned about Facebook’s proposal to apply end-to-end encryption across its messaging services. These proposals would have a staggering effect on the safety of our children, resulting in the potential loss of 12 million referrals to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children annually and limiting law enforcement agencies’ ability to tackle these crimes. While Mark Zuckerberg committed to consult governments on this issue, nothing I have seen gives me any confidence that Facebook will be able to address our serious concerns if it implements its proposals.

That is why I have today written an open letter alongside my American and Australian counterparts, delivering a clear message to Mr Zuckerberg not to implement these changes until he can prove it will not diminish Facebook’s ability to protect its users or tie our law enforcement agencies’ hands.

We are committed to continuing the UK’s role as a global leader in combatting international crime.

As Home Secretary I will continue to fight to bring more prolific offenders to justice and safeguard vulnerable victims.


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