Facebook finally stands up for privacy as the U.S. government demands to hack Messenger

Privacy news
2 mins
The Facebook Messenger logo with a red dot to indicate a new message has arrived. But there's a twist! The red do features an encryption key.

NOTE: This post was originally published on August 28, 2018

The U.S. Department of Justice wants Facebook to break the end-to-end encryption of its Messenger chat app so the government can spy on a suspect.

So far, Facebook is not playing ball.

The case is sealed, so no information about it is available to the public, but it’s thought to concern an investigation of the MS-13 gang in Fresno, California.

Facebook contends that because the suspect used a “secret conversations” feature in the Messenger app, it is unable to see the content of the chat. Though regular Messenger conversations are not encrypted, the secret conversations feature enables end-to-end encryption.

The U.S. government tries to force the court

As Facebook remains defiant under increasing pressure, the U.S. Department of Justice wants the company held in contempt of court for refusing to release the chat transcripts. The government says Facebook should be forced to comply with its demands, but Facebook’s position is unchanged: The message was end-to-end encrypted, and no one can see it.

End-to-end encryption makes it nearly impossible for anyone other than the participants to view the content of a conversation.

To provide a transcript of the chat, Facebook would have to remove encryption from Messenger or hack the suspect completely—two things it is unwilling to do.

It’s not the first time the U.S. has sought to force a company to hack itself

The court case is not unlike the Apple vs. the FBI spat that started when the authorities demanded help to hack into an iPhone.

Apple refused and stated that helping the FBI would have disastrous privacy consequences for its millions of customers. However, the case never got to trial as the FBI found another means to hack the device.

Back in 2006, the U.S. government ruled that telephone companies must allow the police to listen in on citizens’ VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calls as they can on regular phone calls under existing eavesdropping law. However, the law does not currently cover chat apps, gaming chats, and other similar services like Google Hangouts, Signal, and Facebook Messenger.

Is this the end of encryption?

If the U.S. government succeeds in the case against Facebook Messenger, it will set a disturbing precedent with severe implications for internet privacy.

Let’s hope Facebook stands its ground and does not bend to this blatant attempt by the U.S. government to hack into every encrypted chat.

Johnny 5 is the founding editor of the blog and writes about pressing technology issues. From important cat privacy stories to governments and corporations that overstep their boundaries, Johnny covers it all.