It has been proposed that Ofcom will hold social media companies to account for potentially harmful content on their platforms. This follows two recent terror attacks in London and the UK government’s aim to tackle terror threats and extremism, including the ‘influence’ of harmful and extremist content being posted and shared on social media platforms.

Social media sites and ‘chat apps’ have been the subject of a particular debate for more than a decade, since Facebook gained mass popularity: do we consider individual privacy or public safety to be of greater value?

Now that it seems as if UK authorities will soon have greater power to tackle serious and violent crime and terror threats – at an unknown cost to public privacy – the answer to this question is more important than ever.

What’s the current state of play?

This is all coming to a head because Facebook has promised default end-to-end encryption throughout its platforms, which include Instagram and WhatsApp, and several governments, including the UK, are concerned that end-to-end encryption of private messages will undermine national security and public safety.

Governments argue that Facebook’s plans “could hamper international efforts to grant law enforcers faster access to private messages on social media”, while Facebook maintains that “people have the right to have a private conversation online.”1

Why do law enforcement agencies need access to private messages?

Law enforcement officials in the U.K. and U.S. have argued that uncrackable encryption “provides cover for criminals.”2 Several crimes and plots to commit serious and violent crime, including terror, have been discovered by access to private conversations on social media.

Critics of proposals to give law enforcement agencies greater powers to ‘police’ social media worry about “surveillance abuses” and that “backdoor access” for police would also be “discovered and used by malicious hackers.”3

The argument for privacy

There is legitimate reason to be concerned about lack of encryption on private messages. Data leaks and cyber attacks do happen, and while it doesn’t particularly matter if that funny meme you sent to a friend gets into the hands of a hacker, some people share bank details over what they believe is a ‘private’ message on social media.

The old saying ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ also doesn’t hold much clout when debating our privacy. Conversations that we would want to stay private aren’t necessarily connected to any law-breaking or malice, such as messages containing details about our romantic lives, mental health, or what we really think about a ‘friend’. If law enforcement were to read these messages, it shouldn’t affect us in any way; after all, we have done nothing wrong. But in the wrong hands, people could be exposed to risk of blackmail, stalking, fraud or identity theft. We understand that, to some people, the thought of a stranger, even if a law enforcement official, reading our private conversations with family and friends, feels like a violation.

Should we waive our entitlement to privacy for the ‘greater good’?

Arguments in favour of law enforcement access to private messages include the potential that backdoor access could save lives. If access to private messages could potentially allow law enforcement to foil a terror plot, and presumably save the lives of many innocents, should we not waive our individual, and in some contexts, self-serving, entitlement to privacy in order to allow greater protection of the public as a whole? Ultimately, we may be safer if criminals have nowhere to hide their plotting but, unfortunately, this also means that we, as well as criminals, may be subject to greater online surveillance. In the current climate of rising serious and violent crime, for which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, has partly blamed the influence of social media, sacrificing some of our online privacy may be worth it; after all, we may even be the next victims. And those that feel uncomfortable with the possibility that law enforcement could access their private social media messages, can always talk offline.

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By Georgie Bull

Senior PR Account Executive