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Encryption 3 May 2023

Encryption Keeps Kids Safe Online

By Sebastián SchonfeldSenior Communications and Advocacy Advisor
Natalie CampbellSenior Director, North American Government and Regulatory Affairs

As parents and Internet advocates, we’re passionate about children’s safety online, and we do everything in our power to keep our kids safe. Just as we buckle them into seatbelts and make regular doctors visits, we keep tabs on what they’re doing online, using tools like encryption to protect them from danger.

That’s why we’re so worried about proposals like the EARN IT Actthe STOP CSAM Act, and the Kids Online Safety Act in the U.S. These proposals erode the best tool we have for keeping our kids’ information—like where they live and go to school—private and secure.

Allowing our kids to have an online life isn’t always easy. Being a parent is finding the balance between hovering and giving our children independence. Thankfully, there’s a middle ground. We can take control of some of the unknowns, so that we can reduce online risks. By turning to tools and actions, we can ensure our kids aren’t exposed to inappropriate content or contacted by strangers. Encryption is key to this, empowering us so our children can have a healthy, safe online presence—one in which their information isn’t exposed.

How Do These Proposals Put Kids at Risk?

These proposals eat away at encryption. They take away our ability to use the tool that’s vital to keeping our own kids safe online.

Both the EARN IT Act and the STOP CSAM Act would give power to courts to consider the use of encryption as proof of liability in cases of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) distribution on a platform. While the EARN IT Act introduces criminal charges for platforms, the STOP CSAM Act introduces sweeping civil liability for platforms and infrastructure providers. In both cases, the end result is undermined encryption.

EARN IT and STOP CSAM would put platforms at risk of liability for delivering illegal traffic, despite potentially having no knowledge of its contents. This would discourage companies from making encryption available on their services, or even allowing customers to use encrypted services.

Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) would also force platforms to choose between using end-to-end encryption or weakening it to filter content.

As parents, the endless potential outcomes are horrifying. The irony is that many of us don’t realize how much we depend on encryption—because it thrums along silently, preventing worst-case scenarios.

Here’s How Encryption Safeguards Our Kids

1. Encryption Protects Children From Grooming
Kevin is a 12-year-old who loves to draw. He’s eager to share his art with the world. After discussing the pros and cons, his parents decide he can create a profile on DrawHive, a social media platform for art enthusiasts. They block comments and requests to prevent strangers from reaching out to Kevin, either via public comments or private messages. They also allow Kevin to use a separate end-to-end encrypted messaging app so he can chat with his friends. His parents can block message requests from unknown users, so that no stranger can listen in or see his messages—not even the messaging app company. Because of this, the information he shares with his friends cannot be exploited by someone posing as a child to engage with him. For both of his accounts, they choose a profile name together that doesn’t identify Kevin, his family, or where they live.

2. Encryption Protects Children From Exposure To Harmful Content
Shannon received her first smartphone on her 11th birthday. FINALLY. She’s the last kid in her class to get a phone and she can’t wait to chat with her friends after school. As soon as it’s in her hands, she downloads a messaging app and joins chat groups, where she and her besties talk about their most annoying classes, their favorite songs, and how grownups are so cringe. They don’t know it, but their messaging app isn’t end-to-end encrypted. Because it’s not, it scans messages for ad placements, which means Shannon is getting pop-ups that are getting weirder. Yesterday, it was an ad for a dating app. Today, an ad for an adult site. End-to-end encryption could have protected Shannon from being profiled for advertising and inappropriate content.

3. Encryption Protects Children From CSAM
Toby and Sara are in elementary school—and their dad John doesn’t want to lose a single precious memory. He doesn’t have many pictures of himself growing up and he wants to do better by his own kids. Before they were born, he bought a phone with a professional camera and even took photography lessons. By his own count, he’s taken thousands of photos and videos, and he diligently backs these up to his cloud account each day, which he assumes is secure. Unfortunately, it doesn’t use encryption and all of his photos of his kids—running around in diapers, at the pool, and taking their first baths—are now in the hands of people in a CSAM distribution network. With recent developments in AI, it’s also simple to create fake offensive images with their faces.Using encrypted cloud storage could have protected his kids’ sensitive photos.

When bad things don’t happen, there is no news. This is the paradox of encryption. Because it’s impossible to count “prevented harms,” we can’t put a number on the vast number of children encryption has protected. But we know that it does. Like that seatbelt we buckle our child into, encryption does such a good job of keeping all of us safe that we take it for granted. Child exploitation of any kind is heinous, and it’s reasonable that societies want to find ways to solve it. They turn to the authorities to do that. The lawmakers behind these bills say they want to protect children, but they’re weakening the tools that do just that. . Unfortunately, their proposals put all of us at risk—and they take away our ability to protect our own kids.

What can you do? Keep using encrypted tools to protect your children online. It’s one of the best ways to keep them safe.


Image copyright: ©Freepik

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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