While Apple and the FBI go to court over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, the Justice Department is facing another technical hurdle in its own investigation. This weekend, the New York Times reported that a wiretap order has been hindered by the end-to-end encryption on Facebook-owned WhatsApp, one of if not the most popular messaging services in the world.
Months ago, WhatsApp began encrypting all of its messages using “end-to-end” encryption, so-called because the keys for decrypting messages are held only by the recipient. End-to-end encryption, which is both simple and extremely secure, is increasingly standard in messaging apps, in part because its presence means that the companies making the apps can’t crack encrypted messages even if ordered to do so by the government. In this case, the Feds have a wiretap warrant — but because they’d need the locally stored encryption keys to read any of the messages they’d intercept, it’s effectively useless. (The details of the case are under seal, but unlike the showdown over the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, this one does not involve terrorism.)
This isn’t the first time that E2E has caused headaches for law enforcement. Last fall, Apple’s iMessage system came under criticism for offering a similar mechanism, preventing law enforcement from accessing messages. They considered suing Apple for assistance, but backed off. Needless to say, this issue has been near its boiling point for a while. Overseas, a WhatsApp executive was recently briefly detained by authorities in Brazil over encrypted messages.
The legal stalemate right now could be potentially be resolved with new wiretap laws — but so far no one seems willing to push:
Because of such support for encryption, Obama administration officials disagree over how far they should push companies to accommodate the requests of law enforcement. Senior leaders at the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have held out hope that Congress will settle the matter by updating the wiretap laws to address new technology. But the White House has declined to push for such legislation. Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said on Friday that he was skeptical “of Congress’s ability to handle such a complicated policy area.”
As all of this is going on, tech companies are beefing up their security mechanisms. The Guardian reports that Facebook (owner of WhatsApp), Google, and Snapchat are all working on developing more secure messaging systems.