The U.S. government is seeking to compel Facebook to wiretap their Messenger users voice calls, which are secured using end-to-end encryption to ensure privacy. As of last year, investigators from the state and federal level failed to get a court order allowing them to eavesdrop on the Messenger calls of known or suspected international gang members. According to proceedings from the case, since the calls took place over internet infrastructure, they are exempt from federal law that allows officials access to telecommunications voice calls such as those placed via landline and cell phone.
After the U.S. government failed to force Facebook to help their investigators, civil rights groups sued to see the substance and content of the government’s case against Facebook. Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union argued in court that the public had a “right to know the state of the law on encryption,” and should therefore be made aware of the government’s capabilities with regards to monitoring suspects under investigation. The judge for their case disagreed.
U.S. District judge Lawrence O’Neill in Fresno noted that the case is still ongoing, and ruled that the documents being requested by the ACLU and others would “compromise law enforcement efforts in many, if not all, future wiretap investigations.” Presumably those documents would detail which services the government was monitoring as well as what data was being exfiltrated in order to conduct investigations of users. That knowledge could drive the bad actors to more secure services, safe from the eyes of government.
For privacy advocates, this case brings to mind the efforts of the feds to obtain access to an Apple iPhone in the wake of the tragic mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA. In that case the government wanted Apple to install a backdoor in their encryption, which they refused to do. The government dropped the case after they were able to get access to the phone without Apple’s involvement.
Given the repeated attempts by the government to have more powers over internet-based communications, it’s safe to say that this matter is far from settled.