The damning criticism is aimed at Facebook’s plans to roll out end-to-end encryption.
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This would mask messages so that no one can read them.
It’s ostensibly to boost user privacy, blocking out Facebook snooping and some hack attacks – but also prevents security services from gaining access to messages too.
Facebook’s WhatsApp is already encrypted and it’s optional on Messenger, but not on Instagram yet.
“Decisions taken in California boardrooms are every bit as relevant to our ability to do our jobs as decisions taken in Afghanistan or Syria,” MI5 boss Ken McCallum explained during an interview on Times Radio.
The MI5 boss warned that Zuckerberg had creating digital living rooms that could be exploited.
“Our job is to deal with a one-in-a-million case, where the living room is a terrorist living room,” the MI5 chief said.
McCallum went on: “If you have end-to-end default encryption with absolutely no means of unwrapping that encryption.
“You are in effect giving those rare people – terrorists or people who are organising child sexual abuse online, some of the worst people in our society – a free pass.
“Where they know that nobody can see into what they are doing in those private living rooms.”
Facebook is currently trying to “merge” the behind-the-scenes messaging tech that powers Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.
The idea is that users will be able to message each other from and to any Facebook platform. A WhatsApp user could chat to an Instagrammer, for example.
This would also mean encrypting messages sent on all platforms – rather than just WhatsApp.
End-to-end encryption means your message is garbled into gibberish during transit, and can only be read in its true form by the sender and recipient.
That’s because the contacts involved in the chat each have a “key” that decodes the message.
Anyone else (including Facebook) is unable to read the encrypted text.
It’s an important privacy feature, and already one of the defining features of WhatsApp.
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We have no tolerance for terrorism or child exploitation on our platforms.
“And [we] are building strong safety measures into our plans, including using information like behavioural patterns and user reports to combat such abuse.
“We will continue to work with industry experts, law enforcement and security agencies to combat criminal activity, and to keep people safe across all our platforms.”
Today’s comments echo earlier warnings about Facebook inadvertently helping child abusers.
In February, dozens of child safety groups penned a joint letter urging Mark Zuckerberg to bin his encryption plans.
“Facebook may be happy to shut their eyes to abuse but they can’t close their ears to this unanimous concern shown by international experts,” Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief, told The Sun.
“Mark Zuckerberg has a choice whether to allow sexual abuse to soar on his sites or listen to those from all over the world asking him to rethink how to implement encryption without putting children at risk.
“In its current form encryption would breach Facebook’s duty of care for children so the UK Government must ensure a new regulator has the power to hold them financially and criminally accountable.”
Child safety experts – including Child USA and the UK’s NSPCC – argue that it puts kids at risk however.
“Abusers will be able to exploit existing design aspects to make easy and frictionless contact with large numbers of children,” the letter reads.
“And then rapidly progress to sending end-to-end encrypted messages.
“This presents an unacceptable risk to children, and would arguably make your services unsafe.
“End-to-end encryption will embolden abusers to initiate and rapidly escalate abuse directly on Facebook’s services.”
The letter adds: “We therefore urge you not to proceed with the rollout until and unless you can demonstrate there will be no reduction in children’s safety as a result of this decision.”
Encryption is a tricky issue for tech giants.
By encrypting messages, it becomes impossible to tech firms to police the contents of those message.
This, safety experts say, puts kids at greater risk of being targeted by predators.
But privacy experts (and Facebook itself) say encryption is vital to the security of messaging.
By placing a “backdoor” in messages, it exposes all users’ chats to government snooping and hack attacks.
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