Three unnamed sources have confirmed to Reuters that the U.S. government is trying to force Facebook’s hand regarding the encryption on its Messenger app. The government wants the social media platform to make it possible for law enforcement agencies to listen in on a suspect’s conversation during criminal investigations. Facebook has refused the demand and the case is currently set to go to trial in federal court in California. The case is sealed, so there are no public records available.
On August 14, the judge in the case heard opening arguments regarding the U.S. Department of Justice’s request to have Facebook held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate with the investigation.
The case is still in the opening stages, but its results could have widespread ramifications regarding privacy on communication apps. If the courts rule in favor of the government, that could allow law enforcement agencies to make similar demands of other communication apps. For their part, some tech companies, despite the obvious privacy issues inherent in social media, have come to see themselves as guardians of privacy.
In a lot of ways, this case is similar to one that occurred in 2016 between the FBI and Apple regarding the contents of an iPhone belonging to a man involved in the murder of government employees in San Bernardino, California. In that case, Apple argued that the government was violating the company’s first amendment rights by attempting to force the issue. However, the case was never resolved as a third-party contractor helped the government obtain the information it sought from the phone.
This case could also have implications for how internet-based voice applications are viewed in regards to wiretapping. Currently, it is fairly easy for law enforcement to obtain warrants to tap traditional phone conversations, but that hasn’t been expanded to platforms such as Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts.
While there are legal issues at stake here, the goverment’s request also runs into technical ones as well. Standard text messages sent within Messenger do not receive one-to-one encryption, but phone conversations do. Facebook is arguing that the government’s request is impossible without rewriting Messenger’s code, which would make it easier to listen in on anyone’s conversations.
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