DOJ Could Force WhatsApp to Strip Messaging Encryption

The U.S. Department of Justice is trying to decide how to proceed with another encryption issue it's facing: WhatsApp traffic can't be monitored with wire taps because the app's data is encrypted. The DOJ could seek a court order forcing WhatsApp to disable its encryption, which would give the government the ability to eavesdrop on chats but also erode our privacy.

DOJ wire tap demand could threaten WhatsApp encryptionDOJ wire tap demand could threaten WhatsApp encryption

The debate in this case stems from a Federal wire tap warrant in an ongoing criminal investigation. Law enforcement officials are able to intercept the traffic from the messaging app, but the data they're collecting is useless to them.

Former federal prosecutor Joseph DeMarco told the New York Times,

You're getting useless data. The only way to make this not gibberish is if the company helps.

Ironically, the United States helped make the encryption in WhatsApp possible through the Open Technology Fund promoting the idea that people should be able to communicate without fearing government surveillance. WhatsApp was awarded US$2.2 million from the fund to develop the Open Whisper technology it uses to encrypt chats in the app.

The place the DOJ is in now with WhatsApp sounds strikingly similar to its fight with Apple: The government wants the company to intentionally weaken the privacy features in their product, but they're resisting.

In Apple's case, the FBI obtained a court order compelling the company to create a version of the iPhone operating system that removes the security features preventing brute force attacks on the device's passcode. The FBI wants to look at the encrypted data on an iPhone 5c recovered from one of last December's San Bernardino shooters, but can't get past the lock code without destroying whatever content the device holds.

The FBI said they want the code for just this one iPhone, although Apple and other technology companies see it as a dangerous precedent it as a slippery slope where soon all of our encrypted data will be threatened. Apple also said the government is overstepping its legal authority, and that eventually the weakened version of iOS would slip from its control and into the hands of hackers and other governments.

Apple is scheduled to appear in court along with the FBI on March 22 to argue its case, which now includes a formal objection, a motion to vacate, and a long list of amicus briefs from other companies and groups offering their support.

The DOJ hasn't decided how to proceed with its case involving WhatsApp, and may well be waiting to see the outcome of next Tuesday's hearing.