Three people familiar with the case have told Reuters that the United States Justice Department (DOJ) is trying to make Facebook Inc. legally liable to break the encryption of its popular Messenger app so law enforcement agencies could eavesdrop on a suspect’s voice conversations.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of the unnamed sources told the London-based news agency that the issue came to light in Fresno, California, in an ongoing investigation into the notorious MS-13 gang and its criminal activities.
At a sealed trial in a federal California court, the U.S. government on Tuesday (August 14) urged the court to hold Facebook in contempt for refusing to concede to the Messenger access demand by the concerned agencies.
Having been at the receiving end of a lot of privacy-related flak in recent months, the social networking giant is arguing in court that there’s no way it can access end-to-end encrypted Messenger conversations between two users, according to two of Reuter’s sources, who were briefed on the case.
Providers can, and do, decrypt services like ordinary Facebook text messages, or Gmail, among others, for targeted advertising purposes, and can make them available to law enforcement agencies on court-ordered requests.
However, when it comes to end-to-end encrypted services like Signal and Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp platforms, the exchange between users is direct and un-decryptable.
Both parties, Facebook as well as the Justice Department, have declined to comment on the sub judice matter, reports Reuters.
The case obviously reignites the debate over the legality of such demands on companies to alter their products in order to aid surveillance of suspects.
In fact, it is the latest in a series of privacy battles tech companies have been fighting with law enforcement agencies to protect personal data and communication history users have entrusted them with.
Reuter says, according to experts, a ruling in favor of the government in the impending Messenger judgment is likely to set a precedent for the government to exploit against other “popular encrypted services such as Signal and Facebook’s billion-user WhatsApp, which include both voice and text functions.”
Authors Dan Levine and Joseph Menn of the Reuter article correctly note that “law enforcement agencies forcing technology providers to rewrite software to capture and hand over data that is no longer encrypted would have major implications for the companies which see themselves as defenders of individual privacy while under pressure from police and lawmakers.”
The standoff is somewhat reminiscent of the Apple-FBI court case in 2016, which saw the tech giant battle it out with the federal law enforcement agency that wanted Apple to break into an iPhone belonging to a slain terrorist, who was one of the perpetrators of the 2015 San Bernardino, California shooting that killed 14 people and gravely injured 22.
However, this time around it’s not a request for a one-off hacking into a dead criminal’s iPhone, but the government “seeking a wiretap of ongoing voice conversations by one person on Facebook Messenger,” says Reuter.
With President Donald Trump rarely missing a chance to cite the MS-13 gang as the direct consequence of the ineffective policies of the country’s immigration services, Zuckerberg’s continued refusal to comply may attract his ire.
In a South Carolina rally during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had called for a boycott of all Apple products in response to the iPhone-related legal standoff between the Cupertino-based company and the FBI.
At the time, Apple based its case on the argument that the government’s pressure on the company to create software to breach the iPhone in question was in violation of the company’s First Amendment speech and expression rights.
The case did not end in a verdict, though, as the government chose to drop the litigation midway after investigators found an alternative way of getting into the device.
Based on National Institute of Justice-funded research and fieldwork, non-profit journalism and investigative organization InSight Crime reports that the MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, is the largest, most formidable, and progressively most sophisticated street gang in the northern hemisphere.
The organization’s findings revealed that gang started small in the 1980s, spreading its ever-growing tentacles across half a dozen countries over time.
So notorious is the gang for its violent crimes that it has become a nemesis for law enforcement agencies in both hemispheres, and despite their concerted efforts, the gang continues to be a “persistent threat and shows signs of expanding its criminal portfolio.”
Some of Insight Crime’s major findings are bulleted below
- The MS13 is a largely urban phenomenon that has cells operating in two continents
- It’s a social organization first, and a criminal organization second
- It’s is a diffuse organization of sub-parts, with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang
- The MS13 has guidelines more than rules, which are subject to varying interpretations
- MS13 violence is brutal and purposeful
- The gang’s diffuse nature makes it hard for it to control its own expressions of violence
- It’s is a hand-to-mouth criminal organization that depends on control of territory to secure revenue
- The MS13 is a transnational gang, not a transnational criminal organization (TCO)
- El Salvador’s MS13 leaders are trying to assert more control over the US East Coast
- The MS13 is taking advantage of traditional migration patterns, not sending members to set up new cells