Protecting Children in the Age of End-to-End Encryption 

Senior Project Director Laura Draper explores how to combat online child sexual exploitation and abuse when end-to-end encryption obscures the government’s access in a new report. 

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About the Report

Child sexual exploitation and abuse—rape of a child, child sex trafficking, child sexual abuse material—have forever been a scourge on society. The internet did not create these crimes, but it did make it easier to commit these offenses: easier for offenders to identify and target vulnerable children, easier for offenders to find and create child sexual abuse material, easier for offenders to trade these images among themselves, and easier for offenders to hoard these images.

As technology evolves, so does the problem. A major evolution in information and communication technologies (ICTs)3—such as social media and messaging apps—is the steady trend toward the adoption of end-to-end encryption. Whereas offenders once needed to understand how to access the recesses of the dark web to anonymously find and trade child sexual abuse material (CSAM),4 they can now simply download to their cell phone a free messaging application with end-to-end encryption or log on to an end-to-end encrypted live stream to view child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA). These technological changes have profound implications for ways to combat the problem. This report examines these implications and provides necessary context to identify the best ways to intervene.

Discussions of how to combat online child sexual exploitation and abuse often morph into debate over the wisdom of end-to-end encryption, which is a method of secure communication that prevents third parties from accessing content while it is transferred from one system or device to another.5 End-to-end encryption is necessary to protect users’ privacy, including that of human rights activists and journalists located in authoritarian states, and end-to-end encryption creates a black hole where offenders can trade illicit images of abused children with impunity. Both statements are true, which is why the debate on the propriety of end-to-end encryption is ongoing (and possibly unsettle-able). In the context of online CSEA, the debate often treats privacy and child safety as mutually exclusive concepts and pits them against each other.

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