The US Department of Justice is once again trying to force tech companies to give them free reign to the data belonging to criminal suspects.

This time, the US government is reportedly pressuring Facebook to break the encryption in its Messenger app, so law enforcement may listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe.

The secretive federal court case in California is similar to when in early 2016 the FBI tried to force Apple to give them access to an iPhone owned by San Bernardino terrorist, Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife in late 2015 murdered 14 people in San Bernardino.

Encryption battle

In that case, the FBI eventually paid an undisclosed group more than $1 million (£750,000) to help it access the phone.

But now according to Reuters, the US government is seeking Facebook’s help to ‘wiretap’ Messenger, according to three people briefed on the case.

Facebook is said to be contesting the US Department of Justice’s demand, in what has until now been an unreported case in a federal court in Fresno, California, which is being carried out “under seal”, so no filings are publicly available.

The judge in the Messenger case reportedly heard arguments last Tuesday on a government motion to hold Facebook in contempt of court for refusing to carry out the surveillance request, Reuters quoted the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Facebook and the Department of Justice have apparently declined to comment publicly on the matter, but it is understood the case involves an investigation of the MS-13 gang, one of the people said.

It is reported that Facebook is arguing that Messenger voice calls are encrypted end-to-end, which means only the two parties have access to the conversation. Ordinary Facebook text messages, Google Gmail and other services are decrypted by the service providers during transit for targeted advertising, which allows them to be made available for court-ordered interception.

End-to-end encrypted communications, on the other hand, goes directly from one user to another user, with the service providers unable to access anything intelligible.

Facebook reportedly argues it can only comply with the government’s request if it rewrites the code to remove this end-to-end encryption, or else hacks the government’s current target.

Legal implications

If the judge were to rule in the US government favour, legal experts fear it could allow US authorities to force other tech firms to rewrite other encrypted services such as Signal and WhatsApp, to include backdoor access.

Earlier this year Apple revealed a steep rise in national security requests from the US government – a 20 percent increase from first half of 2017.

But this issue is not only happening in the United States.

Russia for example earlier this year closed down access to Telegram.

That decision was taken by Russian authorities after the app refused to give Russian state security services access to its users’ secret messages by handing over encryption keys used to scramble the messages.

But despite the best efforts of Russian authorities to ban Telegram, the majority of users in Russia are still apparently able to access the app.

Iran has also begun to disrupt certain features of Telegram.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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