In August, three unnamed sources confirmed to Reuters that the U.S. government was trying to force Facebook’s hand regarding the encryption on its Messenger app. The government wants the social media platform to make it possible for law enforcement agencies to listen in on a suspect’s conversation during criminal investigations. Facebook refused the demand and the case was set for trial over the summer.
The case is sealed, so there are no public records available.
On August 14, the judge in the case heard opening arguments regarding the U.S. Department of Justice’s request to have Facebook held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate with the investigation. According to Reuters, which spoke to sources familiar with the sealed ruling, the courts have ruled in favor of Facebook. The reasoning behind the judge’s decision has not been released, but the results are a clear win for Facebook.
The outcome of this case could have widespread ramifications regarding privacy on communication apps. If the courts had ruled in favor of the government, that could have allowed law enforcement agencies to make similar demands of other communication apps. For their part, some tech companies, despite the obvious privacy issues inherent in social media, have come to see themselves as guardians of privacy.
In a lot of ways, this case is similar to one that occurred in 2016 between the FBI and Apple regarding the contents of an iPhone belonging to a man involved in the murder of government employees in San Bernardino, California. In that case, Apple argued that the government was violating the company’s first amendment rights by attempting to force the issue. The case was never resolved, as a third-party contractor helped the government obtain the information it sought from the phone.
This case could also have implications for how internet-based voice applications are viewed in regards to wiretapping. Currently, it is fairly easy for law enforcement to obtain warrants to tap traditional phone conversations, but that hasn’t been expanded to platforms such as Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts.
While there are legal issues at stake here, the government’s request also runs into technical ones as well. Standard text messages sent within Messenger do not receive one-to-one encryption, but phone conversations do. Facebook is arguing that the government’s request is impossible without rewriting Messenger’s code, which would make it easier to listen in on anyone’s conversations.
Updated on September 29, 2018: Updated with the news that the judge has ruled in favor of Facebook.