Encryption warning after 100 child sex crimes committed in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire using Facebook owned apps

Thousands of online child sex crimes recorded in England and Wales could go undetected if Facebook introduces end-to-end encryption in its apps, NSPCC research suggests.

Thursday, 5th December 2019, 6:10 am

Police recorded more than 4,000 instances where Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp were used in child abuse image and online child sexual offences last year – an average of 11 times a day.

This was nearly half of the total 9,259 instances where the platform was known, according to Freedom of Information requests obtained by the NSPCC from 32 forces.

Police forces in the East of England recorded 482 instances where Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp were used in child abuse image and online child sexual offences last year – which was 55 per cent of the total 877 offences where the platform was known.

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Of these, there were 162 instances where Facebook was used, 288 where Instagram was used and 32 using WhatsApp.

Cambridgeshire police recorded 173 child sex crimes in 2018/19. Of these, 29 involved Facebook, 69 were on Instagram and eight were on WhatsApp.

The NSPCC is warning crimes will go undetected if the tech giant continues with its plans to encrypt messaging on Facebook and Instagram without first putting clear safeguards in place.

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plans mean it would no longer be able to see and report illegal content to law enforcement, and police will be left working in the dark to detect child abuse crimes, the charity said.

The NSPCC also believes more serious child abuse will take place on Facebook owned apps as abusers will not have to move their victims off the platform to other encrypted ones to groom and exploit them.

The data obtained by the NSPCC found that, of the total number of incidents where the method was recorded, 22 per cent were on Instagram and 19 per cent on Facebook or Facebook Messenger.

Only a small percentage (three per cent) were recorded on WhatsApp which is already encrypted, highlighting how much more difficult it becomes to detect crimes.

The true scale of the problem on Facebook’s platforms could be much higher as some forces could not provide information on the method of communication for some offences.

It comes as the NSPCC is calling for supporters to sign an open letter to Facebook demanding they put children first as part of its Wild West Web campaign.

Andy Burrows, NSPCC head of child safety online policy, said: “Instead of working to protect children and make the online world they live in safer, Facebook is actively choosing to give offenders a place to hide in the shadows and risks making itself a one stop grooming shop.

“For far too long Facebook’s mantra has been to move fast and break things but these figures provide a clear snapshot of the thousands of child sex crimes that could go undetected if they push ahead with their plans unchecked.”

The NSPCC is calling for:

. No end-to-end encryption for messages going to or coming from children’s accounts on Facebook apps

. Adults’ accounts not to be encrypted until and unless Facebook has solutions to ensure child abuse can be detected and that children safety won’t be compromised

. The next Government to push ahead with introducing an independent Duty of Care regulator to keep children safe online

. The next Government to warn Facebook that encryption breaches the incoming Duty of Care and pressing ahead will mean tough consequences.