Reuters has reported that the U.S. federal government is trying to force Facebook to break the encryption of its Messenger app in a lawsuit that’s under seal. The government wants to be able to intercept Messenger voice calls in its investigations, but Facebook is reportedly contesting the government’s request.
Messenger Encryption Case
Last Tuesday, the judge in the Messenger case heard the government’s arguments to hold Facebook in contempt of court over the company’s refusal to break the Messenger app’s encryption. The government wishes to carry out a surveillance request in a case involving a criminal group of undocumented immigrants.
Facebook claimed in court that the Messenger app uses end-to-end encryption for all voice calls, which means the company itself can’t intercept those calls and neither can the government. The only way for Facebook and the government to intercept those conversations would be for Facebook to cripple or remove the end-to-end encryption between all users. Alternatively, either Facebook or the government would need to hack the users’ devices in order to obtain the conversations that are automatically decrypted locally by the application.
Both Facebook and the U.S. government have refused to comment on this case.
Government Fights for Legal Precedent
The government seems to be attempting to create a legal precedent for forcing companies to decrypt communications, no matter what type of encryption they use. The government tried to do the same to Apple in the San Bernardino case, but eventually withdrew from that case, saying it found an alternative method to break into the encrypted phone.
If the government wins this case, then it could force Facebook to decrypt not just Messenger voice communications, but also WhatsApp chats, which, at least for now, continue to use end-to-end encryption by default. Other companies using encryption will also be impacted, potentially even providers of open source private messengers such as Signal or Riot.
U.S. politicians such as North Carolina Senator Richard Burr and California Senator Dianne Feinstein have also attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed the government to compel companies to provide decrypted communications upon request. However, this bill was swiftly criticized by security experts, so it has been put on hold for now.