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Facebook rebuffs US AG over access to encrypted messages

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 25: In this photo illustration the Social networking site Facebook is displayed on a laptop screen on March 25, 2009 in London, England. The British government has made proposals which would force Social networking websites such as Facebook to pass on details of users, friends and contacts to help fight terrorism. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Facebook is rebuffing efforts by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to give authorities a way to read encrypted messages.

The heads of Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Messenger services told Barr and his U.K. and Australian counterparts that Facebook is moving forward with plans to enable end-to-end encryption on all of its messaging services. End-to-end encryption locks up messages so that not even Facebook can read their contents.

WhatsApp already uses end-to-end encryption. Facebook plans to extend that protection to Messenger and Instagram Direct.

Barr and other officials had asked the company in October to hold off. In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, they insisted that precluding access by law enforcement could hinder efforts to prevent or investigate crimes. The letter repeatedly emphasized the dangers of child sexual exploitation to justify their stance.

Law enforcement has long sought a way to read encrypted messages that’s analogous to wiretaps for phone calls. Security experts, however, say giving police such access makes messaging insecure for everyone by creating vulnerabilities that others can exploit.

In Facebook’s response Monday to Barr and other authorities, Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, and Stan Chudnovsky, head of Messenger, said creating such a “backdoor” for law enforcement “would be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes, creating a way for them to enter our systems and leaving every person on our platforms more vulnerable to real life harm.”

Facebook has said that people have the right to have private conversations online and that companies are already able to respond to government agencies when they receive valid legal requests. Facebook’s letter emphasized the many tools the company has build to try to detect criminal and other problematic activities using signals from unencrypted information.

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