“Children, babies and toddlers are being abused and tortured. These companies have the ability to shift the dial, but instead behave like the tobacco companies of the 1960s. They know with certainty their actions are causing harm and they pretend it isn’t happening,” Mr Dutton told the summit in Ethiopia.
“They have also claimed that our governments are seeking to establish a backdoor that would leave all users significantly more vulnerable to real life harm from criminals and others. Ladies and gentlemen, this proposition is completely and utterly untrue.”
Mr Dutton denied law enforcement was pushing for backdoors and said this “lie” was being used as an excuse to resist supporting law enforcement agencies. He called on companies to use their technical nous to mitigate the risk to children.
He said the companies should reconsider their positions on securing user communications, including via end-to-end encryption, which is the encoding of communications to ensure they are only available to the sender and recipient.
Law enforcement agencies have been increasingly frustrated by criminal suspects “going dark” with the aid of encrypted communications.
Mr Dutton said Facebook executives’ argument that safety was paramount to their business was “public relations spin” and an insult.
“Are they forgetting the millions of children who will never be kept safe when end-to-end encryption is adopted as standard practice?”
The tech sector has maintained that Australia and other governments have been pushing for changes that would introduce system-wide vulnerabilities, putting billions of users at risk.
“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 their letter to Mr Dutton and his counterparts.
“That is not something we are prepared to do,” they said, while committing to continue assisting law enforcement and developing ways to tackle criminal abuse of their services.
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. Encryption is in place on other popular messaging services, including Apple’s iMessage.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.