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Facebook’s New Privacy Tools May Endanger Children

Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is introducing some new privacy features that has some parents – and no less than the Home Secretary of the UK – concerned that the tools inadvertently put children at risk from online predators.


The issue derives from the fact that the new privacy features are for messaging apps and provide end-to-end encryption for users and their direct messages. Effectively, messages will now only be accessible by the sender and the receiver. While intended to provide increased security and address privacy concerns, one potential unintended consequence is that Meta will no longer have direct access to messages or their content, and nor will parents who either double-check their kid’s messages manually or use a parental-control/child-safety application.


A spokesperson for the UK’s Government stated, “Meta’s introduction of end-to-end encryption without the safeguards which are currently in place will provide an online haven for pedophiles, organized criminals and fraudsters. It’s crucial for the safety of our children and citizens that they think again. The whole of government is clear about the terrible threat that this poses and the home secretary and security minister are pushing hard to drive this message home to Meta. There will be no let-up.”


The concern is that pedophiles, drug dealers and potentially even recruiters from terrorist groups will be able to direct message children without concern their messages will be monitored. In theory, criminals could even use the new features to actively plan or engage in criminal activities directly, such as coordinating drug deals or terrorist activities. Because of the way the new privacy features are being implemented, Meta employees will also not be able to provide the content of messages to law enforcement without a specific warrant naming the messages to be unencrypted so they can be read by law enforcement personnel. Some law enforcement agencies have expressed concern that this means investigations may be negatively impacted, even as privacy advocates praised the new features.


For its part, Meta has announced that it will also introduce improved parental controls for its applications and websites, although exactly what those tools are or how their work has not yet been disclosed.


Meta was quick to point out that there are already numerous encrypted texting and messaging applications available should criminals wish to use them. In fact, Meta’s engineering team must be pulling their hair out, since the EU’s privacy laws are a large part of why the new privacy features were developed at all.


The new features are currently in an invite-only Beta but are expected to be rolled out broadly across Meta’s platforms in the next few months.


As parents, it’s important we’re aware when these platforms and applications change their features and rules. In this case, Meta will no longer be able to engage in pro-active monitoring of messages. As a private company, of course, it’s their right to do so. However, it makes it more important than ever that you engage in some level of monitoring of their digital activity, and equally vital that you have an open dialog with them about reporting to you anything online that is suspicious or illegal.

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