The United States and Britain are taking advantage of Facebook Inc.'s plan to apply end-to-end encryption to its messaging services to push for major changes in a practice that has long been opposed to law enforcement, saying it makes the fight difficult against child abuse and terrorism.
The two countries plan to sign a special data deal on Thursday that will streamline requests from law enforcement agencies to technology companies for information on communications by terrorists and predatory children, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
Authorities can obtain information in weeks or even days, instead of the current wait of six months to two years, according to a document.
The deal will be announced in conjunction with an open letter to Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, also signed by Australia, asking the company to suspend plans to develop end-to-end encryption technology in its messaging services.
The latest conflict between governments and technology companies over user data may also affect Apple Inc., Google, and Microsoft Corp. Alphabet Inc., as well as smaller encrypted chat applications like Signal.
Washington has called for more regulation and launched antitrust investigations against many technology companies, criticizing them for privacy lapses, election-related activities and the dominance of online advertising.
Child predators are increasingly using messaging applications, including Facebook Messenger, in the digital age to care for their victims and exchange explicit images and videos. The number of known images of child sexual abuse has increased from thousands to tens of millions in recent years.
Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Sujit Raman said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received over 18 million child sexual abuse tips online last year, more than 90% from Facebook.
He estimated that up to 75% of these tips would "darken" if social media companies like Facebook followed encryption plans.
Facebook said in a statement that it strongly opposed "government efforts to build backdoors," which it said would undermine privacy and security.
Antigone Davis, Facebook's global security chief, told Reuters the company was looking for ways to prevent inappropriate behavior and prevent predators from connecting with children.
This approach "offers us an opportunity to avoid harm in a way that simply doesn't chase content," she said.
In practice, the bilateral agreement would authorize the UK government to directly request data from US technology companies, which remotely store data relevant to its own ongoing criminal investigations, rather than requesting it through US law enforcement authorities.
The effort represents a two-pronged approach by the United States and its allies to put pressure on private technology companies, while speeding up information sharing on criminal investigations.