It has been revealed that the government of the United States is secretly negotiating with the popular messaging application, WhatsApp to decrypt its messages.
According to the New York Times, some White House officials are considering opening up a new legal battle to compel WhatsApp to stop encrypting messages if the secret negations breakdown between the government and the company.
WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. The application allows customers to send messages and make phone calls over the Internet. In 2015, WhatsApp started to encrypt messages and conversations that passed through its platform, to enhance its customers’ privacy.
However, in an ongoing case, a federal judge has approved a wiretap telling WhatsApp to hand over messages that relate to an active investigation. The nature of the case is not clear. But officials have said that it does not involve a terrorism investigation.
The encryption method used by WhatsApp means the content of the messages cannot be accessed by WhatsApp, or investigators. WhatsApp uses an end-to-end encryption method, and with this method, only the sender and recipient of the message can access it.
It’s believed that White House officials are first negotiating with WhatsApp to decrypt messages at request of frustrated investigators. But if the company turns down the request, officials are considering taking the company to the law courts. Some officials are also reportedly pressing the Justice Department to ask a judge to force WhatsApp to help the government obtain the information that has been encrypted.
The Times reported that government officials, and those who are involved in the negotiation with WhatsApp, are doing it anonymously. This is because the wiretap order, and all the information associated with it, are still under seal.
Although both WhatsApp and the Justice Department have declined to comment on the case publicly, tension is mounting between the government and the company. The company seems ready not to allow the government to have any sort of influence over its operations.
A civil liberties group, Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement, if the government decides to push WhatsApp further; it would represent a “dangerous legal attack on encryption.”
This issue between the government and WhatsApp comes after an order from a magistrate said Apple should create an operating system to allow the FBI access to the iPhone of one of the attackers of the San Bernardino shooting. Apple has appealed against the decision of the magistrate. The appeal is due to be heard on March 22nd, 2016. Apple has claimed that the government demand is a total breach of customers’ privacy, maintaining that the order of the magistrate would effectively require the company to create a “backdoor” to allow the FBI to access the information.
Recently, privacy and civil liberties groups criticized the Obama administration for signing the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act into law (CISA). The CISA allows companies in the United States to share cyber information. The Act protects the companies from being sued for breach of secrecy or trust by consumers.
Activists against the CISA have argued that President Obama has indirectly brought back the surveillance program. This is because cyber information shared would go to federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the National Security Agency. Activists believe privacy in the United States is now under serious threat.
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