The U.S. Department of Justice wants Facebook to break the encryption in its Messenger app as part of a criminal investigation into the MS-13 gang.
While the case in a federal court in California is under seal, three sources told Reuters that Facebook is fighting the DOJ’s demand, arguing that Messenger voice calls are encrypted end-to-end. That means that the communications only travel from one user to another, leaving nothing intelligible for providers to decipher.
As a result, Facebook says it can only fulfill the government’s request if it rewrites the code for all its users to remove encryption or hacks the government’s target. In turn, the government has responded by filing a motion to hold the social media site in contempt of court for refusing to carry out its request.
Facebook and the Department of Justice both declined to comment.
Legal experts seem divided on whether the government has a strong case or not. While there is a law forcing telephone companies to allow police eavesdropping, federal regulators have not tried to extend that rule to cover chat, gaming, or other internet services, said Al Gidari, a director of privacy at Stanford University Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
“A messaging platform is excluded,” he said.
This case is similar to the legal battle that occurred in 2016 between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple over access to an iPhone owned by the San Bernardino terrorist who murdered county employees.
Apple argued that creating software to break into the phone would violate the company’s First Amendment speech and expression rights. The government eventually dropped the case after it found a different method to crack the phone.
However, that same year, the DOJ once again requested that a judge force Apple to unlock a phone tied to a drug investigation, with the FBI admitting it only has the ability to crack into certain phones and nothing above a 5c, which was the phone in the San Bernardino case.