DOJ’s Secret Standoff with WhatsApp


Hey, The New York Times did an animated GIF. Cool!

If you didn’t know, WhatsApp has become the world’s dominant mobile messaging platform, with 30 billion messages sent per day versus a mere 20 billion for SMS. For Android users at least, it’s also more secure than traditional texting; device-to-server encryption is a standard feature for users of the Android app—encryption is apparently not yet available for iOS.

So it must be an Android user who’s under investigation, then. Because The New York Times reported over the weekend on an ongoing criminal investigation that’s being stymied by WhatsApp’s encryption.

Few details about this specific case are known, only that a federal judge has approved a wiretap order for interception of messages in real time, but authorities are unable to proceed on technical grounds:

It looks like the government has so far only obtained an initial wiretap order—demanding WhatsApp to turn over message content it can’t access. The Department of Justice has not yet decided whether to ask the court for a follow-on order that would compel WhatsApp to decrypt the messages. Presumably, that second order would look similar to the San Bernardino order and direct WhatsApp to write code that would break its own encryption and allow it to provide plain text in response to the wiretap order.

You might be wondering why the DOJ is holding off on that second order. Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has this plausible explanation:

“The F.B.I. and the Justice Department are just choosing the exact circumstance to pick the fight that looks the best for them. They’re waiting for the case that makes the demand look reasonable.”

Welcome to the new front of the new crypto wars.

Sources: EFF, New York Times

Leave a Reply