IWF Podcast Warns Introducing End-to-end Encryption to Messaging Apps Could Hinder Detection of Child Sexual Abuse Imagery

Published:  Thu 8 Jun 2023

In a new podcast released today by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the charity says introducing end-to-end encryption to messaging apps could hinder the detection and removal of child sexual abuse material from the internet.

The IWF, which is responsible for eliminating child sexual abuse imagery from the internet, fears the introduction of this technology could make it harder to stop criminals sharing and distributing illegal images.

The podcast, titled Nowhere to Hide? is part of the IWF’s In Conversation With series exploring the technological and political issues surrounding the global spread of child sexual abuse material. 

This episode looks at how end-to-end encryption goes further than standard encryption, meaning even the service providers themselves can’t see what has been shared between two users.

It means that service providers who deploy end-to-end encryption on their platforms and messaging services are actively disabling their ability to detect child sexual abuse imagery. That is, unless they deploy additional safeguards.

Speaking on the podcast, Dan Sexton, Chief Technical Officer at the IWF, said: “It is very concerning for the IWF. Our mission, our vision, is a safer internet for all, and that the internet is free of child sexual abuse material.

“A big part of how we achieve that mission is providing data on known images and videos to industry so they can detect and block that content, prevent it from being uploaded, saved, shared, distributed and, right now, no one is doing that in end-to-end encrypted messaging services. And that is deeply concerning for us.”

He added: “When a child reports content of themselves to us, we want to be able to say to those children, to those victims, that their content will be found, and it will be blocked across the internet. Right now, we can’t do that with end-to-end encrypted services. That is very concerning for us, and very concerning for those children.”

Mr Sexton, however, said it is possible for safety solutions to be “made compatible” with end-to-end encryption. He said the way in which the technology is being used is the problem, rather than the technology itself.

He said preventing the sharing or upload of child sexual abuse material into end-to-end encrypted spaces can be as unobtrusive as scanning for viruses or malware, and doesn’t require any intrusion into individuals’ privacy.

The podcast is part of a campaign by the IWF which aims to ensure criminals are not given a safe place to share child sexual abuse material undetected if end-to-end encryption is introduced to messaging platforms.

Michael Tunks, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the IWF, said lawmakers all over the world are putting legislation in place which will require companies to detect child sexual abuse material wherever it is being shared, even if that’s within end-to-end encrypted platforms.

He said: “It is really positive to see that lawmakers both in the UK and in the European Union seem very strong on this issue.”

He added: “My message to them would be to hold their nerve on these issues and ensure that we can do all that we can do to tackle child sexual abuse, wherever it occurs on the internet, whether that’s end-to-end encrypted environments or the open internet where, of course, we remove so much of the content we see at the IWF, or in the areas that law-enforcement are more active in like the dark web.

“This content is illegal, it is abhorrent, and we are talking about the sexual abuse of babies, toddlers, appearing in this imagery. It can not be right that we allow that content to freely and openly circulate on the internet.”

Listen to the new podcast here

Tips for helping children stay safe online

Tips for helping children stay safe online

Tips for helping children stay safe online.

20 May 2024 Blog
How online predators use privacy apps. New podcast episode from the IWF

How online predators use privacy apps. New podcast episode from the IWF

In Conversation with Tegan Insoll, Head of Research at Suojellaan Lapsia, and Dan Sexton, Chief Technology Officer at the IWF

15 February 2024 Blog
What did we learn from the US Senate hearing over online harms?

What did we learn from the US Senate hearing over online harms?

By Susie Hargreaves OBE, Internet Watch Foundation CEO

1 February 2024 Blog