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DOJ starts new war on encryption, this time with Facebook

Facebook Messenger

As part an investigation into MS-13, the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to box Facebook into the same corner it tried to put Apple in after the 2015 San Bernadino shooting. According to a bombshell Reuters exclusive, the government wants Facebook to break the encryption of its standalone Messenger app so authorities can listen to the voice conversations of a suspect as part of an MS-13 investigation.

“The previously unreported case in a federal court in California is proceeding under seal,” the Reuters report notes, “so no filings are publicly available, but the three people told Reuters that Facebook is contesting the U.S. Department of Justice’s demand.”

A judge heard arguments in the case earlier this week on a motion by the government to hold Facebook in contempt for refusing to carry this out. The social networking giant has apparently said in court as part of trying to make its case that Messenger voice calls are end-to-end encrypted

Facebook, according to Reuters, says it can only comply with the government’s request if it rewrites its code to remove encryption altogether or if it just hacks the target of the government’s investigation alone, sources told the news service.

This previously undisclosed standoff between Facebook and the government will be massively important to watch for multiple reasons. The government is likely keen to play hardball on this, as President Trump has made the MS-13 gang a key talking point for his anti-immigration agenda. The FBI, of course, ultimately backed down in its previous fight against Apple after the San Bernadino shooting once it was able to get into a suspect’s iPhone without Apple’s help, but that’s different from what’s going on here.

“Unlike the San Bernardino case,” the Reuters story explains, “where the FBI wanted to crack one iPhone in its possession, prosecutors are seeking a wiretap of ongoing voice conversations by one person on Facebook Messenger … If the government prevails in the Facebook Messenger case, it could make similar arguments to force companies to rewrite other popular encrypted services such as Signal and Facebook’s billion-user WhatsApp, which include both voice and text functions, some legal experts said.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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