The US is trying to force Facebook to decrypt messenger files in case with serious privacy implications
According to a report from Reuters, the United States government is attempting to force Facebook to decrypt its Messenger application when individuals are under a criminal probe so that they can listen to the suspect’s voice conversations in search of illegal activity. This brings forth the issue of whether or not companies can be forced to change the way they operate in order to comply with surveillance techniques.
Currently, the case is proceeding in California under a federal seal, which means that there are no public filings available for viewing. It involves an investigation of the MS-13 gang, which President Trump has made a point to hold up as an illustration of why his administration needs to be tough on immigration. According to the report from Reuters, three people familiar with the case informed them that Facebook is fighting the request from the Department of Justice. The same sources also say that the Justice Department made arguments to hold Facebook in contempt of court for not carrying out the surveillance requests.
It’s unclear is how a ruling in this case might privacy matters going forward. Speculation from legal experts is that if this case sets a precedent for government intervention in otherwise secure private messaging systems, then other services such as Signal and WhatsApp will be required to decrypt both their voice and text messages to comply with government probes.
If law enforcement agencies are allowed to force technology companies to decrypt and hand over data, this could have disastrous public consequences for companies who then must comply with legally binding orders from law enforcement officials even if they are branded as protectors of individual freedoms.
Stephen Larson, a former federal judge and prosecutor who represented San Bernadino victims in court, says that the government is required to meet a high legal bar when requesting to get phone conversations, and prove that they have no other avenue from which to get evidence. Larson says that such requests fall under the reasonable searches clause in the U.S. Constitution, and as a result, if these standards are met, then technology companies would have to comply with the requests.
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