US wants Facebook to backdoor WhatsApp and halt encryption plans

Extreme closeup photo of a hand holding a smartphone using WhatsApp.WhatsApp

Attorney General William Barr plans to once again make his case against end-to-end encryption for the masses, this time in a public call for Facebook to ensure that law enforcement can decrypt messages when investigating terrorists, child abusers, and other criminals.

Barr, along with counterparts from the UK and Australia, plan to publish an open letter on Friday that makes the case, BuzzFeed and later The New York Times reported on Thursday. The reports come six weeks after Barr said tech firms "can and must" backdoor encryption to keep it from degrading criminal investigations.

For more than a decade, the US Justice Department has warned encryption could hamstring its ability to fight enemies and conduct criminal investigations, a plight it describes as "going dark." In 2016, the department renewed its push when it obtained a court order requiring Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, Calif., mass killings. Apple fought the order—arguing the code required could be misused—and the FBI eventually found another way to access the encrypted data.

Friday's letter, the publications reported, will largely repeat the same arguments but focus on Facebook. The social media giant already provides strong end-to-end encryption by default in WhatsApp and has signaled plans to expand its encryption offerings in its Facebook Messenger and other platforms. In March, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook was embarking on a major shift to a "privacy-focused communications platform [that] will become even more important than today's open platforms."

WhatsApp encryption is provided by the Signal Protocol that debuted with the Signal messenger. The end-to-end encryption provided by the protocol makes it impossible for Facebook—or any other party other than the sender and receiver—to decrypt messages. Complying with subpoenas or other law enforcement requests is impossible. For Facebook to comply with the Barr's request, it would have to completely redesign WhatsApp.

According to a draft of the letter—which BuzzFeed published in its entirety—Barr and his counterparts wrote:

Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes. This puts our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding a company's ability to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries' attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims. It also impedes law enforcement's ability to investigate these and other serious crimes. Risks to public safety from Facebook's proposals are exacerbated in the context of a single platform that would combine inaccessible messaging services with open profiles, providing unique routes for prospective offenders to identify and groom our children.

The letter asks that Facebook delay its encryption plans until it can ensure those plans don't affect public safety. The letter also provides assurances that the governments recognize the right to privacy and will seek access to encrypted contents only when public safety is threatened. Barr plans to make public remarks on Friday at a Justice Department summit on how encryption is stymying the government's ability to access information, the NYT said. Facebook representatives will also attend the summit, which will focus on the threat encryption poses to child-exploitation cases.

Facebook officials are opposing the request. In a statement, they wrote:

We believe people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world. As the US and UK governments acknowledge, the CLOUD Act allows for companies to provide available information when they receive valid legal requests and does not require companies to build back doors.

We respect and support the role law enforcement has in keeping people safe. Ahead of our plans to bring more security and privacy to our messaging apps, we are consulting closely with child-safety experts, governments, and technology companies and devoting new teams and sophisticated technology so we can use all the information available to us to help keep people safe.

End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. It is increasingly used across the communications industry and in many other important sectors of the economy. We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.

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