US Attorney General William Barr and other US, UK and Australian officials are pressing Facebook to give authorities a way to read encrypted messages sent by ordinary users, re-igniting tensions between tech companies and law enforcement.
Facebook’s WhatsApp already uses so-called end-to-end encryption, which locks up messages so that even Facebook can’t read their contents.
However the officials will ask Facebook to hold off in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. A copy of the letter, dated Friday, 27 September, was obtained by The Associated Press.
The officials wrote: “Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes.”
The letter repeatedly emphasises the dangers of child sexual exploitation to justify their stance.
Security experts, however, say giving police such access makes messaging insecure for everyone. Redesigning encryption to create backdoors for police also creates vulnerabilities that criminals or foreign spies can exploit, they say.
Facebook said on Thursday that people have the right to have private conversations online and that companies are already able to respond to government agencies when they receive valid legal requests.
Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement: “We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”
The letter marks yet another salvo in the Justice Department’s continuing effort to persuade technology companies to weaken or bypass encryption upon requests from law enforcement.