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DOJ Officials Hint Whatsapp Likely Next In Line For The Apple Treatment

Published: March 14, 2016
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Source: Techdirt

The New York Times is reporting -- based on the comments of several unnamed officials -- that Whatsapp may be headed for the same sort of courtroom dustup Apple is currently involved in.

As recently as this past week, officials said, the Justice Department was discussing how to proceed in a continuing criminal investigation in which a federal judge had approved a wiretap, but investigators were stymied by WhatsApp’s encryption.

The Justice Department and WhatsApp declined to comment. The government officials and others who discussed the dispute did so on condition of anonymity because the wiretap order and all the information associated with it were under seal. The nature of the case was not clear, except that officials said it was not a terrorism investigation. The location of the investigation was also unclear.
And, as long as we're operating on hearsay and conjecture, there's also this:
You’re getting useless data,” said Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor who now represents law enforcement agencies that filed briefs supporting the Justice Department in its fight with Apple. “The only way to make this not gibberish is if the company helps.”

“As we know from intercepted prisoner wiretaps,” he added, “criminals think that advanced encryption is great.”
You'd think that access to prisoner wiretaps would somewhat negate the need to break encryption, but maybe these mouthy inmates spend more time chatting about encryption than the allegations against them. And while I understand law enforcement's complaint that they used to be able to get all of this data with a warrant, they also used to have to run license plates by hand and perform stakeouts in person. So, it's not as though advances in technology have delivered no concurrent benefits.

Make no mistake about it: given the multitude of choices, the DOJ would rather have unfettered access to phones and all they contain. Whatsapp may have a billion or so users -- all protected by end-to-end encryption -- but if the FBI can crack open a phone, it can likely get to the content of the messages.

One of the cases indirectly cited (never by name) by James Comey during the early push against the coming darkness of Apple/Google's encryption-by-default revolved around messages recovered from a murdered 12-year-old's phone.
In the case of Amy Fletcher’s son Justin Bloxom, privacy advocates question whether phone evidence was critical to the cases. But Ms. Fletcher said: “Everything that was done was done through texts from a damn cell phone.”

“Had we not had that information, you wouldn’t realize how evil this man was,” said Ms. Fletcher, who didn’t know her son’s 2010 murder in Mansfield, La., had become part of the national debate until contacted by The Wall Street Journal.
There's no mention of Whatapp in the Wall Street Journal's article, so it may be all the recovered texts were of the SMS variety. But Whatsapp is supplanting SMS and the DOJ is definitely interested in the heavily-used messaging app. Last year, its requests to Facebook (which owns Whatsapp) for the contents of these messages jumped astronomically.
In the first six months of 2015, US law enforcement agencies sent Facebook 201 wiretap requests (referred to as “Title III” in the report) for 279 users or accounts. In all of 2014, on the other hand, Facebook only received 9 requests for 16 users or accounts.
Motherboard notes that this number, while still seemingly small, represents a 2,133% increase. Not only that, but the total number of requests to Facebook for this data dwarfs similar requests from Google, which only saw 30 total for 2013-2014 combined.

The FBI and DOJ have yet to say much publicly about this particular case, probably feeling its better to fight only one heavily-opposed battle at a time. But whatever the result of the Apple case, it will hardly be the end of the DOJ's efforts to force service providers to assist them in undermining their own protective efforts.

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