WhatsApp's Encryption Could Be The Subject Of The Next Justice Department Showdown

Image credit: Shuttershock / endermasali
Image credit: Shuttershock / endermasali

As Apple has been embroiled in a contentious fight with the United States Justice Department, another fight has been brewing over the nature of secure communications. According to the New York Times, the department is setting its sights on Whatsapp and its encrypted communications.

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The newspaper has reported that the Justice Department is weighing how to move forward with an ongoing investigation that has run into trouble because of the service’s encryption. A federal judge had okayed a wiretap order during the course of the investigation, but because the communications being tapped is encrypted, they can’t see what’s being said.

The department hasn’t decided how to proceed with the case. There are some that are advocating that they push ahead much like they’ve done with Apple: go to court and attempt to force the company to provide them with access to the information, while others are looking to hold off.

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Should the government bring a suit against Whatsapp, they will likely face another battle with another tech giant. Facebook, which acquired the service in 2014, has publicly supported Apple in its current legal battle.

This also isn’t the first time that Facebook and Whatsapp have run into legal issues: two weeks ago, Brazil authorities arrested Diego Dzodan, Facebook’s Vice President for its Latin American operations, on the charge that the company did not comply with a court order to share information in an ongoing investigation.

The issue highlights the problem that tech companies have when encrypting information for their users: the companies themselves can’t read the information, and programming in backdoor access essentially negates the security of the service.

Depending on how the Justice Department opts to goes forward with their case against Whatsapp, it shows that this isn’t an issue that is limited to a single company, but the industry as a whole, especially as encryption gains ground amongst consumers.

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[New York Times]


Contact the author at andrew.liptak@io9.com.

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DISCUSSION

Automatik Fantastik

The Brazil arrest, just some facts:

a. The processes is running in secrecy because it’s an ongoing investigation. Public will only have access to the papers on the end of the investigation.

b. The process is an investigation related to drug sell. We have no idea of the size. It could be small drug sells or gigantic amounts of drugs.

c. Facebook president was arrested on one day and released on the other day. He slept one night in prison. One judge ordered to arrest him, then, a committee of different judges said to release him.

d. The judge that arrest him said that Facebook, owner of Whatsapp, failed, repeatedly, for months, to comply with orders to do something we don’t know yet. Supposedly, the judge ordered Whatsapp to livestream conversations OR to provide recorded conversations of the group.

e. THE IMPORTANT PART: We don’t know if Facebook DO NOT WANT to comply with the orders OR if Facebook CANNOT comply with orders.

The justice system here is very used to order telephone companies to either record or livestream conversations to the police. Phone companies have always complied. Whatsapp is considered novelty technology to judges, they tend to expect that Whatsapp is the same as SMS and they usually don’t know how encryption or P2P works.