Under The Radar: EU data law row threatens child abuse investigations

December 23, 2020

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Amidst the European Parliament’s regulatory crackdown on data collection and online monitoring, global internet firms risk being prohibited from automatically detecting child abuse imagery posted to their platforms.

What does this mean?

With Europe’s newest ePrivacy directive set to take effect as early as Monday 21 December, the automatic monitoring of email, messaging apps and other digital services will be prohibited by law within the EU. In its current form, this rule would have the result of not only preventing internet firms from accessing mundane personal communication on their sites, but also limit their ability to identify child exploitation via automatic detection. Proactive scanning software currently used for the purpose of flagging child sexual abuse imagery and “grooming” by online predators would be banned without a court order. Discussion as to how these tech giants might be exempted from the new measures are ongoing, with many Member State representatives outwardly opposing the incoming privacy law’s effect on anti-child exploitation efforts.

What's the big picture effect?

Child safety experts have been outspoken about the impact of this Directive on the fight to combat online child abuse. Currently, tech giants such as Facebook and Google use their detection software to provide police across the UK and EU with vital information regarding child abuse investigations. This year, over 2.3 million photos, videos and other materials involving online child sexual abuse were reported in the EU alone. According to experts, it’s estimated that if these privacy measures become law, there could be a 70% decrease in reports from internet companies to law enforcement agencies across the world. It’s not hard to see how this could be extremely dangerous; making it far easier for sexual predators to contact children online without the risk of being caught. 

This new data law has attracted pushback on an international scale, with leaders from across the globe voicing their concerns. Outgoing US Attorney-General, William Barr even went so far as to say that the EU’s new law risks “undermining the global response to a global crime.” While Facebook has stated its commitment to adhering to the new laws within the EU, there are also fears that this may lead to a “domino-effect” whereby scanning for such content ceases globally, since these firms are under no legal obligation to continue. 

Given the obvious threat to child abuse investigations, a proposal has been sent to Parliament advocating that the processing of data for the purpose of combatting child sexual abuse be exempt from the new law. Commission officials are hoping to reach a compromise that would allow the detection of such images to continue for several years. Whichever outcome is ultimately chosen by the EU, it’s essential that the law strikes an appropriate balance between the need for stringent cybersecurity measures and the importance of ensuring child safety online.

Report written by Jade Jordan

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