Encryption will allow Facebook to sidestep accusations — Haugen

Earlier this month Facebook’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg posted a short video on Instagram of him with his wife, Priscilla Chan, serenely enjoying a sailing trip with friends.

he intimate clip was seemingly part of a new PR strategy to distance the 37-year-old from his company’s mounting scandals and associate him with Facebook’s futuristic gadgets, such the video-shooting sunglasses he filmed the nautical scene on.

Within 48 hours of the sailing post that strategy was sunk as Frances Haugen, a former Facebook executive, unmasked herself as the whistleblower behind a devastating series of leaks that have #plunged the social media giant into its deepest crisis.

After going public, Ms Haugen called on Facebook to “declare moral bankruptcy” over the way it had prioritised “growth at all costs” over addressing the harms its addictive algorithms are wreaking on users.

Ms Haugen, who has come to London to give evidence in Parliament tomorrow, warns Facebook’s encryption plans mean it will lose sight of espionage operations being performed on its apps by hostile nations.

She also expressed concern about the effect Facebook-owned Instagram may have had on the British schoolgirl Molly Russell, who took her life after viewing self-harm and suicide material on the app.

Ms Haugen, who was responsible for detecting and disrupting espionage operations during her time at Facebook, tackled efforts by Chinese operatives to implant spying software on to the phones of Uighur dissidents.

She warned Facebook would not be able to uncover such operations if it goes ahead with its controversial plans to encrypt its Messenger app as well as Instagram’s direct messages  meaning not even the company will be able to see what users are sending.

Describing her work, Ms Haugen said: “A key part of [Chinese operatives’] strategy was to send malware to Uighurs who lived in places that weren’t China, as if they could compromise one phone they could compromise a whole community. We said we won’t be able to see the malware anymore [with encryption].”

Facebook is under pressure from the UK government to ditch its encryption plan. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has criticised the proposals saying they would allow harmful material such as child abuse images to “proliferate” on Facebook’s apps.

Ms Haugen warned Facebook’s encryption plans, which the company argues are to enhance privacy, are in reality an attempt to hide the harmful material circulating on its apps rather than tackle it.

She said: “End-to-end encryption definitely lets them sidestep and go ‘look we can’t see it, not our problem’.”

A Facebook spokesman said: “The reason we believe in end-to-end encryption is precisely so that we can keep people safe, including from foreign interference and surveillance as well as hackers and criminals. We will maintain the ability to receive user reports of suspicious messages, which will help indicate if there is a coordinated abuse of our services.”

Ms Haugen expressed concern about the impact Facebook’s algorithms in its Instagram app may have had on Molly, who took her life six days before her 15th birthday in 2017.

She said she recognised the Russell family’s fears about the impact Instagram may have had on their daughter.

Ms Haugen said: “In the case of Molly Russell, she may have been feeling kind of blue and might have followed some stuff related to feeling a little blue. I guarantee you that with the algorithm, if she kept engaging, it just kept getting worse.

“Imagine you are kind of a fragile teen and you are being exposed to a little bit of stuff, talking about how you are worthless, and then [you] engage a little bit and it keeps getting worse and worse. It is bad.”

A Facebook spokesman said: “We’ve never allowed content that promotes or encourages suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and in the last few years we’ve updated our policies to ban even more content, including all graphic imagery.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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