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FBI document shows how easy it is to access your encrypted chat data

Published Dec 3rd, 2021 12:10PM EST
encrypted messaging
Image: oatawa/Adobe

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Your encrypted messaging history might not be as safe as you thought.

With every big tech company spouting on and on about privacy, it might be surprising to hear that messages you thought were private aren’t necessarily completely private. A new document from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows just how easy it can be to access your data.

Encrypted messaging apps aren’t completely safe from the FBI

Signal app running on iPhone (left) and Android (right). Image source: Signal

Originally obtained by Rolling Stone, the document breaks down what kind of data the FBI can obtain from messaging apps like Signal, WhatsApp, and Apple’s iMessage.

Despite Apple’s claims that “privacy is a human right”, iMessage is one of the most permissive encrypted messaging systems out there. According to the FBI document, law enforcement can gain access to basic subscriber information. Depending on the situation, they may also get access to 25 days of iMessage lookups from a target number. The FBI can access backups of a target device with a search warrant. Also, any iCloud backups made of Messages could be turned over to law enforcement.

WhatsApp also features a ton of privacy-centric settings. And yet, it’s another encrypted messaging app with pretty hefty turnovers when subpoenas and warrants are involved. Much like iMessage, the FBI can access basic subscriber records when serving a subpoena. A court order can provide information like blocked users. And, a search warrant grants the FBI being access to your address book contacts. Additionally, they also get any records of WhatsApp users who have the target account in their contacts.

Other messaging services included in the document are Wechat, Viber, Telegram, Signal, Line, and Wickr.

How safe are your messages?

WhatsApp-Disappearing-MessagesImage source: Facebook

If you rely on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp or iMessage, then this might be concerning. We can always make arguments about law enforcement needing that kind of access, though. However, without offering a transparent record of this to consumers, it does feel a little dicey.

A lot of people turned to these apps to help protect their daily conversations with loved ones from nosy advertisers and bad actors in general. This document doesn’t really portray any kind of assessment of the risk that your data is at for those folks. However, it does raise some questions about the overall security of your data in those apps.

If the FBI can get access to your private conversations so easily, then how easy might it be for bad actors to do the same? Unfortunately, there’s nothing to really break that down right now. All we can do is hope that the messaging apps are actually secure from bad actors, despite how much access law enforcement might have to them.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.