DOJ Officials Hint WhatsApp Likely Next In Line For The Apple Treatment

from the the-rest-of-the-dominoes-should-fall-like-a-house-of-cards...-checkmate dept

The New York Times is reporting — based on the comments of several unnamed officials — that WhatsApp may be headed for the same sort of courtroom dustup Apple is currently involved in.

As recently as this past week, officials said, the Justice Department was discussing how to proceed in a continuing criminal investigation in which a federal judge had approved a wiretap, but investigators were stymied by WhatsApp’s encryption.

The Justice Department and WhatsApp declined to comment. The government officials and others who discussed the dispute did so on condition of anonymity because the wiretap order and all the information associated with it were under seal. The nature of the case was not clear, except that officials said it was not a terrorism investigation. The location of the investigation was also unclear.

And, as long as we’re operating on hearsay and conjecture, there’s also this:

You’re getting useless data,” said Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor who now represents law enforcement agencies that filed briefs supporting the Justice Department in its fight with Apple. “The only way to make this not gibberish is if the company helps.”

“As we know from intercepted prisoner wiretaps,” he added, “criminals think that advanced encryption is great.”

You’d think that access to prisoner wiretaps would somewhat negate the need to break encryption, but maybe these mouthy inmates spend more time chatting about encryption than the allegations against them. And while I understand law enforcement’s complaint that they used to be able to get all of this data with a warrant, they also used to have to run license plates by hand and perform stakeouts in person. So, it’s not as though advances in technology have delivered no concurrent benefits.

Make no mistake about it: given the multitude of choices, the DOJ would rather have unfettered access to phones and all they contain. WhatsApp may have a billion or so users — all protected by end-to-end encryption — but if the FBI can crack open a phone, it can likely get to the content of the messages.

One of the cases indirectly cited (never by name) by James Comey during the early push against the coming darkness of Apple/Google’s encryption-by-default revolved around messages recovered from a murdered 12-year-old’s phone.

In the case of Amy Fletcher’s son Justin Bloxom, privacy advocates question whether phone evidence was critical to the cases. But Ms. Fletcher said: “Everything that was done was done through texts from a damn cell phone.”

“Had we not had that information, you wouldn’t realize how evil this man was,” said Ms. Fletcher, who didn’t know her son’s 2010 murder in Mansfield, La., had become part of the national debate until contacted by The Wall Street Journal.

There’s no mention of WhatsApp in the Wall Street Journal’s article, so it may be that all the recovered texts were of the SMS variety. But WhatsApp is supplanting SMS and the DOJ is definitely interested in the heavily-used messaging app. Last year, its requests to Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) for the contents of these messages jumped astronomically.

In the first six months of 2015, US law enforcement agencies sent Facebook 201 wiretap requests (referred to as “Title III” in the report) for 279 users or accounts. In all of 2014, on the other hand, Facebook only received 9 requests for 16 users or accounts.

Motherboard notes that this number, while still seemingly small, represents a 2133% increase. Not only that, but the total number of requests to Facebook for this data dwarfs similar requests from Google, which only saw 30 total for 2013-2014 combined.

The FBI and DOJ have yet to say much publicly about this particular case, probably feeling it’s better to fight only one heavily-opposed battle at a time. But whatever the result of the Apple case, it will hardly be the end of the DOJ’s efforts to force service providers to assist them in undermining their own protective efforts.

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Companies: facebook, whatsapp

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Comments on “DOJ Officials Hint WhatsApp Likely Next In Line For The Apple Treatment”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Meanwhile on the other side...

“You’re getting useless data and bricked devices,” said Grabya Akounts, a former pickpocket that now works as a fence for stolen electronics and the personal information gleaned from them. “The only way to make this not gibberish is if companies can be forced to remove encryption-by-default, or are required to use intentionally weak encryption.”

“As we know from intercepted discussions from the public and those in the tech industry,” he added, “people trying to protect their personal information and devices think that advanced encryption is great.”

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Their own laws.

And of course for maximum sleaze they do so while at the same time claiming that it’s not the place of companies to decide on encryption, but the public and lawmakers.

Who refused their demands and decide that no actually, let’s not break encryption by requiring mandatory security vulnerabilities just so the voyeurs can have an easier time of it.

And who they are now ignoring in their attempt to get what they wanted anyway.

JBDragon says:

Re: Their own laws.

Actually congress already passed a Law in the 90’s when we had this same debate. Back then it was with the Clipper Chip! This matter should be done and over with. Yet here’s the FBI repeating the same crap now as back then hoping to get their way this time!!!

This is a good link on the matter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Eat, sleep, explain, repeat…

If I’m forced to leave my backdoor key under the doormat – is there a chance bad guys might find and use it?
If I’m forced to make a backdoor key then others can make that key too (given time and motivation).
Encryption is either safe or isn’t (when backdoored). It is that black and white! There is NO grey area.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Nonsense, if the techies just geek harder they can easily make encryption that is totally secure against ‘bad guys’ but lets ‘good guys’ in just fine. The only reason they haven’t is that they’re just too lazy and profit focused to try.

Meanwhile, encouraged by the cry of ‘Just geek harder!’ aimed at the tech industry, the military is hard at work ‘designing munitions’ harder, working night and day to get the last little bugs out of the new, special ‘Bad guys only’ munitions, which are only able to be fired by ‘good guys’, and can only harm ‘bad guys’, making friendly fire, having to worry about your own weapons being used against you, and dead innocents a thing of the past.

Isn’t it amazing what can be accomplished if you just try hard enough and don’t let pesky things like ‘reality’ get in the way?

Richard (profile) says:

Its an ill wind...

Just suppose that the company pushing strong encryption as its unique selling proposition was NOT a US company. Further supposing it hailed from a country that has one of those “free trade deals” with the US.

Now that company could haul the DOJ up against one of those tribunals that is “above” all the US courts. They would likely win…and there would benothing that the US government could do about it!

Just wondering…

Ryunosuke (profile) says:

okay so all the Republican presidential nominees want to “make US military great again” and to “Rebuild the US military”. Never mind the fact that it is still one of the largest, behind China ofc in terms of numbers. So by incorporating our Civilian law enforcement as Military personnel you both make it great and rebuild it at the same time.

surely NOTHING EVER in the history of the world has gone wrong when a military force controls the civilian population…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…So by incorporating our Civilian law enforcement as Military personnel…

Unless the civilian law enforcement personnel have reserve/national guard commitments they are not subject to overseas deployment. The US strategy since WWII has been to take the fight to the enemy’s territory and not wait until the enemy sets foot on US soil. Unfortunately the transport capabilities have been reduced over the years. Yes, the US Air Force and Navy can waste anybody that opposes them but I’ve never heard of any conflict being settled without troops on the ground. And getting the troops where they’re needed is becoming more challenging unless the US increases it’s transport capabilities.

Anonymous Coward says:

Whatsapp is much more used outside of the US – so the US gov can go F— itself!

Snapchat “the private messenger” is more used inside the US, but it makes you wonder why they don’t go after Snapchat, no, instead no?

Maybe because it never implemented end-to-end encryption which is MUCH better at keeping messages actually private than the “self-destructing” feature that allows the government to intercept all of those messages and picture IN TRANSIT anyway?

Anon says:


So if there’s a new version of an application with weaker security, just say no to upgrades.

Of course, if a foreign company publishes a secure app, can the USA force it to be taken down? Will it be a requirement now that the App Store only allow insecure apps? I assume that can’t apply to Android, so people will buy Samsung instead of Apple. I wonder if Samsung is subsidizing the DOJ lawyers? Make South Korea great again!

btr1701 (profile) says:


Apple’s case is very different than WhatsApp.

The issue with Apple is that they’re being forced to modify the OS to disable the phone’s lock-out feature, not break encryption.

With WhatsApp, there is no operating system to modify. The user’s data is just encrypted. Period. There’s no modification of the app which the company can write that will magically decrypt what has already been encrypted. Without the key (which the company does not have), there’s nothing they can do.

JBDragon says:

Re: Re: Encryption

It’s the FBI wanting to weaken the Front door Security of the iPhone by Apple creating a GovOS for the iPhone. What the FBI really wants is back door access!!!

The FBI is just repeating what they tried 20 years ago in the early 90’s and the Clipper Chip they wanted all devices to have so they could gain backdoor access!!!

How the court could make Apple do such a thing when congress already settled this matter is strange. Check out this great link on the matter.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Encryption

‘Companies are responsible for breaking their own
> security anytime someone with the ‘proper paperwork’
> comes knocking, and if they refuse for any reason they
> should be punished until they comply.’

A judge can issue an order requiring me to make the sun rise in the west instead of the east from now on. Doesn’t mean I’ll somehow be able to alter the spin of the planet. There are some things that are just immune to court orders, and math is one of them. 2+2 does not equal fifteen just because a judge orders it to.

Whatever (profile) says:

thread 602

“Motherboard notes that this number, while still seemingly small, represents a 2133% increase.”

When one uses percentage increase numbers to try to make something look really big when it’s infact microscopically small, you failed. In real terms, the numbers are so small as to be negligible.

“The FBI and DOJ have yet to say much publicly about this particular case, probably feeling it’s better to fight only one heavily-opposed battle at a time.”

Perhaps they aren’t commenting because there isn’t much more than a media created thing that isn’t really happening. Could it be nothing more complex than the feds paying more attention to social media and realizing it’s a great place to find idiots criminals who can’t shut up?

Anonymous Coward says:

When one uses percentage increase numbers to try to make something look really big when it’s in fact microscopically small, you failed. In real terms, the numbers are so small as to be negligible.

Would you feel the same way say, if 21 of your teeth hurt versus just one? I mean, it’s just a change of 20 – far less than 270, unless you want to argue that I’m taking an absolutist view of numbers…

Would that also be a negligible difference where you’d be fine with your dentist saying “I can see you in 3 or 4 days for your mouthful of bad teeth?” If a change from 9 to 270 is insignificant, then surely a change from 1 to 21 is equally insignificant, right?

Anonymous Coward says:

Silly government

Silly government! Didn’t you learn anything from Hollywood? You don’t go after the big players with lots of money to defend themselves. You go after the little guys who can’t fight back. Then once your desires become law courtesy of the courts, you can force the law on the bigger players and get what you want!

Adrian Cochrane (profile) says:

They win both ways

In response to an early comment, if the FBI looses this case they’ve at least convinced the public that Apple devices are safe and they (the FBI) can’t get into them.

Meanwhile Apple heavily encourages their consumers to use iCloud, which the FBI can, and regularly do, get into (which ofcourse they can’t in this case because they’ve messed things up by changing the password).

So it’s a win for the FBI either way. My best advice is to support Apple but don’t get fooled.

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