The FBI wants in on your encrypted WhatsApp conversations…

9 Jun 2015

An apparent fear of Islamic extremism is pushing the FBI in the US to request access to bulk data from encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Kik.

A report in the LA Times claims that the FBI has tried to keep secret its weak spot when it comes to monitoring terrorist activities, with encrypted messaging allowing people the freedom to say what they wish – the horror.

What’s essentially happening is services like WhatsApp don’t store or hand over conversations had by its subscribers, with their encryption models there to assure people that their discussions on the messaging service are private.

This holds great appeal as, ever since the Edward Snowden revelations, Joe Public has realised there are fewer and fewer ways to converse with friends outside of the watchful gaze of state surveillance agencies both in the US and abroad.

Tense standoff on encryption

“The issue has created another tense standoff between national security officials and social media companies reluctant to change their software and provide more access to law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” reads the article.

“We’re past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael Steinbach, the FBI’s top counter-terrorism official. “We are dark.”

So the FBI are seeking a way to use court orders, in specific circumstances, to gain access to this encrypted data, and there’s significant fight back in the industry.

It’s not the first time that encryption of services has been criticised by people at the top of the surveillance food chain, though.

Last November, Stewart Baker, a former lawyer for US surveillance behemoth the National Security Agency (NSA), claimed encryption was a bad thing, pitting US companies against the US government, helping nobody but the bad guys.

State bodies face a struggle at the moment

It’s a tricky time for agencies in the US that rely on widespread surveillance, following the passing of the Freedom Act recently that sought to curtail the NSA’s immense spying activities, largely restricting the bulk collection of phone use.

This was fully supported by US President Barack Obama, who also fully supported the bulk collection before the public turned against it.

In fact bulk surveillance is so supported at state level in the US that a special request was made soon after the legislation passed for 180 extra days of it, while the Freedom Act was polished and fully brought into action.

A trust issue

Major tech companies, reliant on consistent support from their consumer base, are fighting huge battles to win back trust since Snowden’s revelations of programmes such as Prism.

At the start of the month, Apple CEO Tim Cook took aim at US pressure to do away with encryption, claiming his company “reject the idea” that there should be a trade-off between privacy and security.

“We’ve been offering encryption tools in our products for years, and we’re going to stay on that path. We think it’s a critical feature for our customers who want to keep their data secure,” he said.

“For years we’ve offered encryption services like iMessage and FaceTime because we believe the contents of your text messages and your video chats is none of our business.”

Phone use, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic