The U.K. Government's Latest Encryption Fearmongering Relies on Child Sex-Trafficking Panics

British police want greater surveillance powers and they’re willing to destroy everybody’s cybersecurity to get them.


The British government hopes to use parents' fears of child predators in a new marketing campaign designed to undermine end-to-end encryption.

Rolling Stone writer James Ball broke the news on Saturday, reporting that the United Kingdom's Home Office (the British equivalent of America's Department of Justice) was planning "a multi-pronged publicity attack." That attack launched today with the Home Office announcing its partnership with various charities in a "No Place to Hide" campaign that will "urge social media tech companies to put children's safety first on their platforms."

"Right now," an ad for the "No Place to Hide Campaign" asserts, "some social media companies can detect online child sexual abuse and report it to law enforcement. But some companies plan to introduce end-to-end encryption, which will make this much harder."

End-to-end encryption is a form of tech security that prevents anyone but the sender and recipient of electronic communications from seeing the information that is being transmitted. This prevents third parties from discerning the content of communications or messages.

End-to-end encryption protects both individuals and institutions from having important or sensitive information intercepted by outsiders, particularly hackers with malicious intent. It is a vital tool that allows us to protect ourselves.

By its nature, such encryption also makes secret surveillance by police more difficult, which is why so many governments around the world would gladly shut it down. The United Kingdom has attacked end-to-end encryption for years now, as have Australia, the United States, and other countries.

Cybersecurity experts almost uniformly agree that compromising end-to-end encryption to give government officials "back doors" to bypass it would weaken everybody's privacy and thus increase crime. Nevertheless, government officials deliberately ignore or downplay such risks in the hopes of convincing the public that weakening encryption is for the public's own good.

According to Rolling Stone's reporting, the British Home Office is specifically hoping to use fears about child predators as a way to turn public sentiment against Facebook's plans to add end-to-end encryption to its popular Messenger app. The Home Office reportedly has a budget of 534,000 pounds (about $725,000) for its anti-encryption marketing campaign.

Rolling Stone also reports:

The plans include a media blitz, campaign efforts from UK charities and law enforcement agencies, calls to action for the public to contact tech companies directly, and multiple real-world stunts—some designed to make the public "uneasy."…

One key slide notes that "most of the public have never heard" of end-to-end encryption—adding that this means "people can be easily swayed" on the issue. The same slide notes that the campaign "must not start a privacy vs. safety debate."

That last observation is particularly telling. Plain old fearmongering is clearly a central part of this latest campaign against end-to-end encryption. According to Rolling Stone, one proposed ad would put a child and an adult (both actors) in a plastic box with the adult looking "knowingly" at the child, suggesting predatory behavior. It's a campaign designed to reach the sort of already hysterical people who see non-existent sex-traffickers everywhere they go.

Tech and privacy activist organizations are already pushing back. Open Rights Group, a U.K.-based outfit devoted to protecting privacy and free speech online, has put together a counter-advertisement noting how much criminals will love the British government's plans to weaken encryption.

"If apps like Signal and WhatsApp break encryption to read your messages," the Open Rights Group warns in its ad, "it will be possible for cyber criminals, hackers, and foreign governments to read them, too."