FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The U.S. government is trying to force
Facebook Inc (FB.O)
to break the encryption in its popular Messenger app so law
enforcement may listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a
criminal probe, three people briefed on the case said,
resurrecting the issue of whether companies can be compelled to
alter their products to enable surveillance.
previously unreported case in a federal court in California is
proceeding under seal, so no filings are publicly available, but
the three people told Reuters that Facebook is contesting the U.S.
Department of Justice’s demand.
judge in the Messenger case heard arguments on Tuesday on a
government motion to hold Facebook in contempt of court for
refusing to carry out the surveillance request, according to the
sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
and the Department of Justice declined to comment.
Messenger issue arose in Fresno, California, as part of an
investigation of the MS-13 gang, one of the people said.
President Donald Trump frequently uses the gang, which is active
in the United States and Central America, as a symbol of lax U.S.
immigration policy and a reason to attack so-called “sanctuary”
laws preventing police from detaining people solely to enforce
called members of the gang “animals” this year when the Sheriff of
Fresno County complained that California laws limited her
co-operation with federal immigration enforcement targeting gang
potential impact of the judge’s coming ruling is unclear. If the
government prevails in the Facebook Messenger case, it could make
similar arguments to force companies to rewrite other popular
encrypted services such as Signal and Facebook’s billion-user
WhatsApp, which include both voice and text functions, some legal
enforcement agencies forcing technology providers to rewrite
software to capture and hand over data that is no longer encrypted
would have major implications for the companies which see
themselves as defenders of individual privacy while under
pressure from police and lawmakers.
issues came into play during a legal fight in 2016 between
the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple Inc (AAPL.O)
over access to an iPhone owned by a slain sympathizer of Islamic
State in San Bernardino, California, who had murdered county
OF VOICE CONVERSATIONS
the Apple case the company argued that the government could not
compel it to create software to breach the phone without violating
the company’s First Amendment speech and expression rights. The
government dropped the litigation after investigators got into the
phone with a contractor’s help.
the San Bernardino case, where the FBI wanted to crack one iPhone
in its possession, prosecutors are seeking a wiretap of ongoing
voice conversations by one person on Facebook Messenger.
is arguing in court that Messenger voice calls are encrypted
end-to-end, meaning that only the two parties have access to the
conversation, two of the people briefed on the case said.
Facebook text messages, Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O)
Gmail, and other services are decrypted by the service providers
during transit for targeted advertising or other reasons, making
them available for court-ordered interception.
encrypted communications, by contrast, go directly from one user
to another user without revealing anything intelligible to
says it can only comply with the government’s request if it
rewrites the code relied upon by all its users to remove
encryption or else hacks the government’s current target,
according to the sources.
walk past a Facebook Messenger logo during Facebook Inc's
annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California,
U.S. May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo
experts differed about whether the government would likely be able
to force Facebook to comply.
Larson, a former judge and federal prosecutor who represented San
Bernardino victims, said the government must meet a high legal
standard when seeking to obtain phone conversations, including
showing there was no other way to obtain the evidence.
the U.S. Constitution allows for reasonable searches, Larson said,
and if those standards are met, then companies should not be able
to stand in the way.
federal appeals court in Washington D.C. ruled in 2006 that the
law forcing telephone companies to enable police eavesdropping
also applies to some large providers of Voice over Internet
Protocol, including cable and other broadband carriers servicing
homes. VoIP enables voice calls online rather than by traditional
in cases of chat, gaming, or other internet services that are not
tightly integrated with existing phone infrastructure, such as
Google Hangouts, Signal and Facebook Messenger, federal regulators
have not attempted to extend the eavesdropping law to cover them,
said Al Gidari, a director of privacy at Stanford University Law
School’s Center for Internet and Society.
messaging platform is excluded,” maintains Gidari, who is not
involved in the Fresno case.