The number of EU Facebook users reported to the police for allegedly sharing illegal depictions of minors declined by 46% (from 1,100 a day to 600 a day) since the company suspended screening private messages. New EU legislation protecting the confidentiality of digital correspondence has prompted Facebook to halt its error-prone algorithms that indiscriminately search private conversations via Facebook Messenger. But big tech and some NGOs are successfully pushing the EU to revert this legislation, despite warnings that the changes will not withstand court challenges.
The automated analysis and reporting to the police of digital correspondence by US tech companies has come under fire for frequently disclosing legal private photos such as holiday pictures to staff and falsely reporting users to the police for alleged “child pornography”. According to the Swiss Federal Police 90% of the computer-generated reports sent from the US via an organisation named NCMEC do not contain criminal material but, for example, private holiday photos of children playing at the beach. Teenagers are also frequently reported to the police and criminalised for sending self-generated nude pictures to friends (sexting).
Victims of child sexual abuse have criticised the privatised mass surveillance of private correspondence for eliminating spaces for victims to seek confidential help and counselling. They warn the “robocop” algorithms will only push criminals further underground, making it more difficult to prosecute them. In fact even regarding the major US communications services, the controversial monitoring has been unable to curb the volume of conversations reported for allegedly illegal content, with the number of reports still increasing from year to year.
Member of the European Parliament Patrick Breyer (Pirate Party) welcomes the suspension of Facebook’s error-prone incrimination machine:
“Already our privacy legislation has protected thousands of Europeans from unjustified criminal investigations with possibly devastating consequences. Relieving the police from these error-prone computer-generated charges will also free up capacities for an intensified prosecution of organized child sexual abuse and targeted undercover investigation operations, which will truly protect children.”
Since Dec. 21 2020, the “European Code of Electronic Communications” has extended the secrecy of telecommunications to e-mail, messenger and chat services. U.S. corporations such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have so far searched not only publicly accessible websites, but also private e-mails, messager messages and chats for supposedly prohibited images and videos, to file police reports in a fully automated procedure. Opponents criticize that because of error-prone algorithms (“artificial intelligence”), even legal but intimate nude photos could fall into the wrong hands.
Unlike Facebook (Facebook Messenger), Google (GMail), Microsoft (Outlook.com) and other corporations announced they would continue the illegal mass screening of electronic mail. Breyer has filed privacy complaints against Facebook and Google. “The U.S. corporations lack respect for the privacy of our correspondence, which is a fundamental right in Europe. Imagine the post office was snooping through our letters just in case – no one would put up with that!”
The EU wants to adopt two laws to first legalize the privatized “incrimination machines” (so-called temporary ePrivacy derogation) and then permanently force all providers to search all electronic correspondence and report to the police. Whether end-to-end encrypted messenger services will be affected and forced to install backdoors has not yet been decided. Recently, the German Federal Data Protection Commissioner sharply criticized the EU plans: “Blanket and indiscriminate monitoring of digital communications channels is neither effective nor necessary to track down online child abuse. Sexualized violence against children must be tackled with targeted and more specific measures. Investigative work is the task of law enforcement authorities and must not be outsourced to private operators of messenger services.”