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Herald-Dispatch Op-Ed: Warrant-proof encryption threatens children

Courtesy of
Mike Stuart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia

America is suffering a child exploitation crisis. In 2018 alone, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline received more than 18 million reports that contained more than 45 million pieces of content. These reports contained more than 23 million images and more than 22 million videos.

While technology has helped cause the problem of the massive amounts of child sexual abuse material found online, technology could also help us catch the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. Regrettably, politically unaccountable executives running big social media companies are making business decisions — like the decision to implement “warrant-proof” encryption — that could seriously impede the government’s efforts to bring child exploiters to justice.

When implemented on popular messaging platforms and social media sites, “warrant-proof” encryption makes it impossible for law enforcement to access digital evidence, even when authorized by a court-ordered warrant. And even when there is probable cause to seek a warrant, law enforcement is blind to investigate and prove criminal activity.

I am a firm believer in privacy and data security. Our Founding Fathers got it right. The Fourth Amendment ensures “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects,” but it balances that protection with the authority of the people (through politically accountable law enforcement officials) to search for evidence when there is probable cause. For hundreds of years, the United States has thrived on this careful balance between the individual and society. But the advent of warrant-proof encryption throws off this balance, allowing private companies to define the terms of public policy and public safety in truly alarming ways. We should not, and cannot, allow security enhancements to the virtual world to make us less safe in the physical world.

To be sure, technology companies should share their advances with the public. After all, America is a country built on innovation and ingenuity. Where would we be without the likes of Edison, Ford, Gates, and others? However, refusing to provide warranted access to encrypted data puts our nation’s children and the public at great risk.

Warrant-proof encryption has already been implemented on the messaging service WhatsApp with heart-breaking results: child pornographers and other criminals are communicating with impunity. Apple implemented warrant-proof encryption on its platforms a few years ago; unsurprisingly, that company’s reporting to the NCMEC of evidence of child exploitation occurring on its platforms is laughably (and tragically) low. It’s not that Apple magically runs clean platforms; it’s that the company has created a lawless space where law enforcement is powerless to investigate and intervene regardless of how heinous or how despicable the crime. Other big providers like Facebook have announced plans to implement warrant-proof encryption across its platforms in coming months. Warrant-proof encryption blocks traditional law enforcement techniques and turns the internet into a safe haven for child pornography, terrorism, fraud, drug trafficking, gang activity and more. Technology that, by design, impedes law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prevent egregious crimes has no place in West Virginia or civilized society. Warrant-proof encryption facilitates criminal activity and allows criminals to advance their diabolical and destructive agendas with impunity.

I know the risks of warrant-proof encryption first-hand. Recently, my office prosecuted Conner Ray Blevins, who was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for producing child pornography. The despicable nature of his crimes went far beyond that.

In October 2018, Blevins traveled from Virginia to West Virginia, picked up two 11-year-old children whom he had been communicating with over Facebook, and took them to a hotel where he videoed himself raping one of the children. Blevins admitted to raping the other child, as well. Eleven-year-old children! It is a remarkably horrific case.

If Blevins’s communications over Facebook with his victims had been warrant-proof encrypted, a case that was difficult to prove may have become impossible to prove — and a child rapist, instead of spending 25 years in federal prison, might still be on the streets of West Virginia.

Recently, the Trump Administration sounded the alarm on this trend. Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray have invited the tech industry to collaborate on developing a solution that will deliver both a secure digital world, and a safe physical world. It’s common sense.

Updated January 20, 2021