Facebook Fighting FBI Over Encrypted Messages: Report

Facebook is fighting the U.S. Justice Department over a demand that the social-networking service decrypt Messenger voice conversations in a California case related to the MS-13 gang, Reuters reported earlier today (Aug. 17).

Credit: Jaktraphong Photography/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Jaktraphong Photography/Shutterstock)

The case is being kept under seal, but Reuters said three separate individuals who were not named had told the news agency that a judge heard arguments Tuesday (Aug. 14) about whether Facebook should be held in contempt of court for refusing the government's demands.

The government wants to listen to voice conversations involving a single individual in Fresno as they happen over Messenger, which lets users make encrypted voice calls.

Messenger voice calls are encrypted end-to-end, and not even Facebook is supposed to be able to listen in on them. Creating a method by which the company, or the authorities, could eavesdrop on such calls would require fundamentally weakening the encryption model and placing Messenger users at the mercy of online criminal and repressive governments.

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The case is broadly similar to that of Apple fighting the U.S. government over an encrypted iPhone two years ago. But in that case, the data the authorities wanted was stored on the iPhone, and considered "data at rest." Here, the Feds want to listen to "data in motion" — the digitized voices of the participants in the voice calls — as it's being transmitted in real-time.

The laws governing data in motion are different from and, in some ways, clearer than those governing data at rest. In almost all cases, a judge's search warrant is sufficient to wiretap someone, and Facebook might have less of a legal leg to stand on than Apple did.

For several years, the FBI has been warning of what it calls the "going dark" problem. Many of the online and mobile communications to which law enforcement agencies had easy technical access since the mid-1990s are no longer accessible, even with a warrant, as service after service becomes strongly encrypted.

The FBI and some Justice officials want "backdoors" that would give law enforcement exclusive access to encrypted data. But Apple, Google and now, apparently, Facebook, have pushed back, stating that "backdoors" would be impossible to conceal from determined hackers and foreign intelligence agencies.

If the judge does rule against Facebook, and the inevitable appeals to higher courts go the same way, then the implications for services that encrypt data communications end-to-end might be vast. Other services, such as Signal, Apple's iMessage, BlackBerry Messenger or WhatsApp, might be required to also "dumb down" their messaging services' security.

Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at FoxNews.com, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.