By Robert McMillan and Sadie Gurman 

Representatives from law enforcement and the technology industry pledged to step up their fight against child sexual abuse on the internet, but remained at odds over government concerns about misuses of the encryption technology deployed by some companies.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday said six major technology companies had agreed to a set of voluntary principles that would guide their approach to fighting online sexual exploitation of children.

The technology companies have agreed to a series of high-level principles that will govern the way they police online content -- ideas such as focusing their efforts on areas that have been difficult to monitor, such as live streaming, and taking into account solutions proposed by victims. Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Microsoft Corp., Snap Inc. and Twitter Inc., as well as the online gaming hub Roblox Corp., have been developing these principals since July, the Justice Department said.

But Mr. Barr and some of the U.S.'s closest international intelligence-sharing partners -- a group known as the Five Eyes -- remain concerned that encryption technology, particularly Facebook's plans to add end-to-end messaging encryption, could leave them in the dark. Some members of that group last year already voiced their concerns about the spreading private-sector use of such technology.

"Encryption remains the elephant in the room," James Brokenshire, a minister with the U.K.'s Home Office, said Thursday in Washington. "Last year Facebook identified around 12 million incidents of child sexual exploitation abuse on Messenger -- something that I absolutely commend them for doing -- yet plans to encrypt this service would leave you blind to the same crimes."

Facebook, meanwhile, reiterated its concern that any government efforts to roll back encryption would undermine the security of its products. "We believe companies and governments can work together to keep children safe online while still protecting people's privacy and continuing to secure their messages with encryption," a company spokesman said via email.

Mr. Barr has also rebuked Apple Inc. less than two months ago for its encryption and other digital security measures when he escalated pressure on the company to open a pair of iPhones belonging to an aviation student from Saudi Arabia who authorities say killed three people at a Florida Navy base late last year.

Mr. Barr has shown a willingness to confront tech companies in a way that has concerned even some like-minded Federal Bureau of Investigation officials who fear it could hurt the relationships they have built with Silicon Valley.

Yet Mr. Barr, speaking at the press event Thursday where officials declined to answer questions, appeared to soften his tone. He again lamented suspects' ability to communicate through "virtually unbreakable encryption," saying "predators' supposed privacy interests should not outweigh our children's privacy and security; there's too much at stake." But, he added that he was heartened that companies had signed onto the principles.

Four years ago, the Justice Department launched a legal fight against Apple, looking to compel the iPhone maker into granting it access to the mobile phone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., terror suspects. Government officials ultimately backed down after a private firm found a way to access the phone.

Apple wasn't named in Thursday's announcement, but a company spokesman said it endorses the principles.

In addition to Mr. Barr's statements, U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut have proposed legislation that could pressure tech companies into providing law-enforcement access to these systems.

Apple, like Facebook, has previously said that any system that would grant such access would undermine the security of their products and create opportunities for criminals and authoritarian governments to improperly access user data.

Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com and Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 05, 2020 17:45 ET (22:45 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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