While the legal battle over encryption between Apple and the FBI is still in progress, the Department of Justice may already have its next target in mind. The New York Times reports that an investigation has reached a dead-end due to the strong encryption of WhatsApp messages, although the exact nature of the investigation is unclear. The DOJ is still considering its options, but a legal fight between the government and WhatsApp is being considered as an option. Neither the DOJ or WhatsApp have made an official statement on the matter. Members within the DOJ only spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity.
According to some investigators, the issue with WhatsApp and similar apps is even more significant than the locked phone issue at the heart of the current fight between Apple and the FBI. For decades the DOJ has relied on wiretapping as a key tool in its investigations, and they believe that encrypted messaging apps could jeopardize the future of wiretapping. Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor described the issue by stating, “You’re getting useless data. The only way to make this not gibberish is if the company helps.” He later added, “As we know from intercepted prisoner wiretaps, criminals think that advanced encryption is great”
The tension surrounding encrypted apps has been around for some time. Last year, a dispute related to Apple’s iMessages app almost lead to a legal showdown. In that case and many others, the company provided as much information as it could, but did not cooperate in undermining the app’s strong encryption. The DOJ eventually backed down. Some have argued that the DOJ is waiting for the right opportunity to push its demands through the courts. Chief computer scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation Peter Eckersly stated, “The F.B.I. and the Justice Department are just choosing the exact circumstance to pick the fight that looks the best for them. They’re waiting for the case that makes the demand look reasonable.”
WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook have already gotten into trouble in Brazil, due to its encrypted nature. Earlier this month, A Facebook executive was arrested by Brazilian police because the company would not cooperate with an investigation, according to authorities. However the company states it did not have access to the information being requested by the police. The original arrest order was soon overturned by a higher court.
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