“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 platforms more vulnerable to real-life harm,” WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart and Messenger boss Stan Chudnovsky wrote in the letter, seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Allowing law enforcement to circumvent encryption, the executives argued, would inherently weaken the security of the entire system. “That is not something we are prepared to do,” they said.
Appearing before the US Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday, local time, Facebook’s messaging privacy director Jay Sullivan will argue users have a right to be protected from people with “malicious intent”. In his opening statement, a copy of which has been seen by the Herald and The Age, Mr Sullivan pointed to the plight of dissidents needing to operate “without fear of surveillance or retaliation” from authoritarian regimes.
“Facebook is committed to making such private communications broadly available,” he said.
Facebook has 2.7 billion users across all its platforms. Currently, WhatsApp is encrypted while Messenger has opt-in encryption and Instagram’s direct messaging is not encrypted. The company is pushing ahead with its plan for complete encryption across all services, in consultation with governments and experts.
Encryption is already in place on other popular messaging services including Viber, Signal and Apple’s iMessage.
While standing firm on privacy, Facebook has acknowledged the consequences for law enforcement agencies, who face the growing obstacle of criminal suspects hiding behind encryption and “going dark” during investigations.
Mr Sullivan acknowledged that “certain people will attempt to misuse our services to do harm” and outlined the company’s commitment to prevention, detection and reporting systems to sit alongside encryption. He pointed to the company’s efforts to tackle child exploitation material, remove fake accounts and limit viral misinformation.
He said Facebook recognised a responsibility to co-operate with law enforcement in response to emergency situations, terrorism and child abuse and this work would continue whenever it was lawful and not interfering with encryption.
Facebook and other tech companies have strongly opposed the Australian government’s encryption-subverting Assistance and Access legislation, which was rushed through Parliament late last year. Labor is pushing to amend the laws, which compel a company to provide assistance or introduce technical changes to its platforms to access user data.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.