UK police authorities will soon be able to request access to encrypted communications sent via Facebook, WhatsApp and other popular social platforms 

Alexis Gambetta
Media Director

Note: this post is a composite of two stories in the Financial Times and the London Timesthat were behind pay walls so we combined them.

30 September 2019 (Paris, France) -  WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms will be forced to disclose encrypted messages from suspected terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals under a new treaty between the UK and the US. 

Priti Patel, home secretary, will sign an agreement next month that compels US social media companies to hand over information to the police, security services and prosecutors. The data access agreement, which marks the culmination of four years of intense lobbying by the UK, is seen by Downing Street as an essential tool in the fight against terrorism and sexual abuse.

Ms Patel has previously warned social media companies that they risk empowering terrorists and urged them to take greater responsibility for criminal activity on their platforms. At present the security services are  only able to obtain data if there is a need for an "emergency disclosure" due to an imminent threat to life. The police and prosecutors can also request data under the "mutual legal assistance" treaty but the process is highly bureaucratic and can take up to two years.

Under the new treaty, the police, prosecutors and the security services can submit requests for information to a judge, magistrate or "other independent authority". The process will be overseen by the investigatory powers commissioner.

The UK has agreed it will not target people in the US and the US has agreed not to target people in the UK. The government is "confident" that the arrangement will comply with data protection regulations. Britain has also secured a guarantee that any information secured by the US from British companies cannot be used as evidence in cases that attract the death penalty, without the UK's permission.

Last year Facebook was criticised by police investigating the murder of 13-year-old Lucy McHugh for refusing to release messages sent by Stephen Nicholson, the main suspect. After applying through the US courts for access to his account, prosecutors only received a log of his Facebook contacts with Lucy but not the content of any messages. It finally arrived the day that the trial started and Nicholson was convicted.

David Davis, the former Brexit secretary and a prominent campaigner on privacy issues, cautioned against the new powers. "The simple truth is that I'm afraid the US has a habit of using to the maximum extraterritorial laws to promote its own causes," he said.

However, Richard Walton, a former head of counterterrorism at the Metropolitan Police, said: "US tech giants have been inadvertently putting a veil over serious criminality and terrorism. It has tilted the balance in favour of criminals and terrorists. This is very welcome, it will make a big difference."

Behind the story

The rise of social media has made it a fixture in investigations, with crucial evidence found on phones and computers.  Technology giants have tried to balance users' privacy with the demands of law enforcement but frequently fall foul of officers, judges and politicians. Delays have hampered a series of prosecutions.

The killer of Lucy McHugh, 13, had been communicating with her via Facebook Messenger. Police were denied emergency access to the messages and it is believed that the murderer managed to delete several.

WhatsApp's use of encryption held up the investigation into Khalid Masood, who killed five people in an attack in Westminster in 2017. It was criticised for failing to report his last message.

Last month a judge in a child sex abuse trial said social media firms were guilty of showing "misplaced loyalty to customers".

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