Privacy Blog

"Friends don’t let friends get spied on.' – Richard Stallman, President of the Free Software Foundation and longtime advocate of privacy in technology.

U.S. Government Reportedly Wants to Wiretap Facebook Messenger

According to an exclusive report from Reuters, Facebook may be about to receive one of its stiffest challenges yet from the U.S. government. The U.S. government is trying to force Facebook Inc. to break the encryption in its popular Messenger app so law enforcement may listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe, three people briefed on the case said, resurrecting the issue of whether companies can be compelled to alter their products to enable surveillance. Such a mandate would be a clear violation of the company’s and the customers’ First Amendment speech and expression rights.

The encrypted text messaging and voice conversation applications, such as Facebook Messenger, Signal, WhatsApp, and others are so secure that even the employees of the producing company cannot wiretap the conversations and listen in. These highly secure, end-to-end encrypted, communications go directly from one user to another user without revealing anything intelligible to providers or to anyone who wiretaps the conversations.

The U.S. Government reportedly wants to change that, despite the fact that such an order appears to be unconstitutional.

Under the proposed changes, not only would law enforcement personnel be able to wiretap your conversations, but, within months, hackers and foreign governments around the world undoubtedly would be able to do the same. We have already seen many examples of hackers and foreign governments tapping into unencrypted communications. The U.S. Government’s proposal would create the same weaknesses.

If this proposal succeeds, it will be a big loss of privacy for law abiding citizens as much as it will be for criminals. 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 encrypted voice and text functions.

If the courts rule that companies can be forced to allow wiretapping, my guess is that the companies that such produce products will either stop producing them entirely or else move to overseas locations where U.S. laws are meaningless. In the case of large U.S.-based corporations, such as Facebook, it probably is more practical for the corporation to either sell or simply give the existing privacy-enabled application to an overseas company.

You can read more in the Reuters News Agency web site at:

COMMENT: Several overseas companies already produce encrypted communications capabilities, including Viber (based in Luxembourg), Line (based in Japan), KakaoTalk (based in Korea), and maybe some others that I cannot recall right now. My suspicion is that, upon passage of any new laws banning encryption software produced by U.S. companies, a number of overseas producers will immediately jump in and develop similar or even better private, encrypted messaging apps. Such software developed and sold outside the U.S. would not need to comply with U.S. laws and court actions.

“Importing” software by consumers is simply a quick download of a new app, a trivial thing in today’s connected world. All of us can download software from any country we choose. Such apps can even be installed and hidden rather easily in such a way that a law enforcement inspection of your cell phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer will not even show if such software is installed.

If passed, the new U.S. law will soon be meaningless except that it will drive several million dollars’ worth of business to overseas companies. The U.S. Big Brother authorities will remain locked out.

Categories: Encryption, Offline Privacy & Security, Online Privacy & Security

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