The children’s commissioner for England has warned that end-to-end encryption is putting children at risk of abuse, as a survey finds that most eight-year-olds are using messaging apps supposedly restricted to those aged 13 or older.
In a report published on Tuesday, Anne Longfield said plans by social media firms to widen the use of encrypted messaging would make it impossible for platforms to monitor content.
Longfield argued that such technology, which keeps messaging hidden from anyone who is not a participant in a conversation, could stop police from gathering crucial evidence of child sexual exploitation.
The report, Access Denied: How End-to-end Encryption Threatens Children’s Safety Online, says: “The privacy of direct messaging platforms can conceal some of the most heinous crimes against children, including grooming, exploitation and the sharing of child sexual abuse material.”
A survey undertaken for the report revealed that nine out of 10 children are using messaging apps and websites such as WhatsApp, which has a minimum age of 16 in the UK, and Facebook’s Messenger app, which has a minimum age of 13. It also found that three out of five eight-year-olds and 90% of 12-year-olds use the apps despite restrictions that are meant to limit their use to those aged 13 and older, with many of them claiming to be older than they are.
The survey also found that one in six girls aged between 14 and 17 said they had received distressing private messages from strangers, while one in 20 children said they had shared videos or photos of themselves with people they have never met.
Longfield said the findings showed that “the tech giants are failing to regulate themselves and so are failing to keep children safe”. She called on the government to introduce legislation on the back of its 18-month-old online harms white paper as soon as possible in 2021.
The report recommends that such legislation set a strong expectation on platforms to verify their users’ ages and allow severe sanctions against those that breach a duty of care, with heavy fines and a requirement to inform users when they do so.
Longfield said: “It has now been 18 months since the government published its online harms white paper and yet little has happened since, while the threat to children’s safety increases.
“It’s time for the government to show it hasn’t lost its nerve and that it is prepared to stand up to the powerful internet giants, who are such a big part in our children’s lives. Ministers can show they mean business by promising to introduce legislation in 2021 and getting on with the job of protecting children from online harms.”
Simone Vibert, the author of the report, added: “The fact that there are age limits on these apps shows that the tech giants themselves are aware of the risks, and yet most do very little, if anything, to reliably check the age of their users.”
Facebook has announced that it will fully encrypt its Messenger app and Instagram direct messaging service. WhatsApp is already fully encrypted.
The company has previously argued that it has “led the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect, and respond to abuse and we will continue to work with law enforcement to combat criminal activity”.