DOJ Could Force WhatsApp to Strip Messaging Encryption

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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.

The Mac Observer Spin The Mac Observer Spin is how we show you what our authors think about a news story at quick glance. Read More →

The fight to preserve encryption, security, and our right to privacy isn't going to be easy, and assuming Apple would be the only company the DOJ targeted is myopic.

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So the FBI wants to play whack-a-mole with message apps. The most likely result is that users will abandon WhatsApp and move on. Bad for Facebook; good for start-ups in places that take privacy seriously. Unfortunately, probably bad - potentially deadly - for dissidents everywhere.


Exactly right
People in North America sit around fat and happy thinking this is just an esoteric legal squabble between the DOJ and Apple’s lawyers. In reality it literally is a matter of life and death in most of the rest of the world. Assad has sent assassins against his opponents in other countries once they were identified. Chile under the Junta did the same as has Putin’s Russia. Several other totalitarian regimes are suspected of doing the same. Even if the exact code were to never slip out of the FBI’s hands, (a fantasy), other countries will demand a version for their own “anti terrorist” campaigns. What do you think Turkey’s leader would do with it? Ot Iran? Or China? Or Nigeria? Or Brazil? Does anyone think THEY would never let it slip into the hands of ISIS, or Al Quaida, or Narco Cartels, or the Yakuza, or criminal hacker gangs from Byelorussia?


This is what I don’t understand, going forward. Say a law enforcement organisation captures a known terrorist, before he has a chance to destroy his/her phone. They know the phone will contain vital information to help in their investigation, but the owner refuses to open the phone. Aside form torturing the person….what alternatives are there?
Leave out all the histrionics spouting around the web, it’s my fundamental belief that Apple, Google, MS and any other company using encryption is eventually going to have to bow down to the will of government. I just don’t see this going anywhere else.
That’s not to say I don’t support strong encryption, I do and for all the reasons I read on the webs.


With respect to really-bad guys, breaking the iPhone is a one time thing; it will work only until the public knows about it, then the bad guys will use some other encrypted app.  I think what the feds are going to do (after WhatsApp goes wonky) is to say to other companies, “see what happened to WhatsApp; put in our back door without letting anyone know, or else”. Unfortunately, much of the criticism of the FBI by other similar organizations relates to the public nature of its demand rather than the demand itself. They would rather have accomplished what they want without anyone knowing about it.

Robbo: that is the” kidnapped child in the box” scenario (so it is not new). If time is of the essence, torture is the only way (assuming it would work).  If time is not of the essence, one could drug the person or use one of the other (physical) ways to extract the information from the phone.  Keep in mind that what has been discussed so far wrt iPhone is not instantaneous, and it is not really a back-door. Even the WhatsApp “fix” requires legal process so it is not instantaneous either.  So your question is not yet being addressed, but when it is, one solution is to accept that privacy has costs.


Sorry, that should be:
With respect to really-bad guys, breaking the iPhone or an app like WhatsApp is a one time thing. . . .


I’m sorry, but this (these) threads are now MOOT !!! You, me, Appe, Googlie, Farcebook, etc. NOW HAVE ZERO SAY in determining the outcome of the FBI’S actions…

Check it…



If the U.S. government is going to go after every form of computer encryption I want them to publish how many terrorist they think are using these American companies’ apps.

I would imagine very few terrorist are willing to take a chance on a normal consumer device built in the U.S. not already having a backdoor in it or a known technique that can bypass security.

George Orwell’s head would explode if he was alive today to see what allegedly democratic governments were doing.


HA !! Yup.. That’s gonna be a VERY short list… It was reported last evening that there are over 800 encryption apps available TODAY from third party deveolpers/designers/builders that are currently in use… BUT, with the NSA, FBI and the FISA courts are now involved and ALL private input/opinion is now MOOT.

Dean Lewis

The FBI apparently can’t use the data it’s getting from the NSA, else they wouldn’t be asking for a way to decrypt WhatsApp stuff they sniff of the net and airwaves.

I think it’s a bit early to be putting on the tinfoil hat. Vigilance is required; not quackery.


It is only Monday…

Lee Dronick

Dean I am thinking that the NSA doesn’t want to share the intel with the FBI because the later would introduce it as evidence. If that were to happen a defense lawyer would dissecting how it was obtained and that could be useful to the “enemy”.

Just thinking out loud.


It’s really annoying that everyone keeps trying narrow this down to messaging and phone calls. Even if they don’t have the body of the messages in question, they do have logs of every call they made and when; as well as the same log for their messaging apps.

As for terrorism: it’s just plain daft to think that ISIS or whoever is going to train an operative, send them to the US, and then, at a later date, send them an email detailing all the names, dates, places, times, etc. And if they did, they could just send the plans as an encrypted attachment that uses software that DOESN’T have the FBI back door. After all, wouldn’t they just memorize their plan? (Ever see the movie “The Dirty Dozen?”)

What keeps getting lost is the fact that smartphones are now also our wallets too (NOT just used for communication). If the FBI gets what it wants, it will become incredibly dangerous to us your phone for online payments, banking, shopping, and point-of-sale payments. At that point, we might as well just go back to the dumb phones of the 1990’s.

Lee Dronick

Jscottk, these days it seems to be mostly about self planned lone wolf attacks. That way there is no trail, no links to accomplises and officers.

Jonas Bilious Slough

Next they’ll be banning Pig Latin….

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