Abuse survivor fears Facebook’s security plan leaves room for predators
An activist who was sexually abused as a child after being groomed online has urged Facebook to drop plans she says will weaken protections for vulnerable people and give predators “free rein” to target young people.
Rhiannon-Faye McDonald cited her own experience of being preyed upon by an online abuser in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, boss of the social media giant.
Facebook has announced plans to introduce end-to-end encryption — so messages can only be viewed and read by the sender and recipient — on the rest of its app messaging platforms here. 2023, raising concerns among activists that the police and Facebook will not be able to report harmful or disturbing content.
But others say increased security is fundamental to protecting personal data.
In her letter, Miss McDonald, who waived her right to anonymity, wrote: “Please don’t turn off your ability to detect child sexual abuse. Your company employs some of the brightest minds in the world and we hope you will leverage that expertise to prioritize finding a solution that protects privacy without putting children at risk.
The 32-year-old told the PA news agency: “For me, end-to-end encryption is a very big concern…and I think that victim-survivor perspective has really been missing from this debate. .”
Miss McDonald was 13 when she started chatting with a sexual predator posing as a teenage girl, who then persuaded her to send a topless photo in order to work as a model.
Within 24 hours the man, who claimed to be the girl’s boss, showed up at Miss McDonald’s family home and sexually assaulted her.
Miss McDonald has not told anyone what happened but was contacted by police six months later while investigating crimes involving another victim.
Miss McDonald said she was not against the idea of end-to-end encryption, but wanted safeguards to be put in place effectively, meaning that Facebook can continue to report the harmful content.
She said: “For me the biggest concern is that perpetrators are going to have a free place, they are going to have places online where they can operate and identify, treat and abuse children where they are not going to be caught.
“And there is no one who can see what is happening to intervene and identify vulnerable children and prevent them from being harmed.”
Miss McDonald said she continues to be affected by her ordeal, almost two decades later.
“There are images of my sexual abuse when I was 13, they exist. I don’t know where they are, I don’t know who saw them, I don’t know if they’re online. I don’t can’t control them and I can never control them,” she said.
“And knowing that tech companies have the means to detect known child sexual abuse images and remove them is a comfort.”
She praised Facebook for ‘doing a really good job’ flagging child sexual abuse material, but warned the company risks taking ‘steps backwards’ and ‘turning a blind eye to abuse if it introduced end-to-end encryption.
She added: “Every time an image is viewed, the child in that image is re-victimized and re-traumatized.
“So I’m still sometimes walking down the street, looking at people and thinking, ‘Have you seen any pictures of me? Do you recognize me from a picture you looked up?
“It’s extremely damaging, the impact of these images. We have a tool that helps us combat this problem, and end-to-end encryption is going to take it out of our hands.
“So the letter to me is to appeal to Mark Zuckerberg to consider this issue as part of the larger issue of end-to-end encryption, and not introduce end-to-end encryption until the right safeguards are not in place to ensure that children cannot be harmed.