Future Tense

Report: DOJ Pressuring Facebook to Break Encryption on Messenger App

The Justice Department reportedly filed a motion to hold Facebook in contempt of court.
The Justice Department reportedly filed a motion to hold Facebook in contempt of court.
Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

The Department of Justice is attempting to compel Facebook to break the encryption on its Messenger app so that officials can eavesdrop on the calls of a suspect in a case involving the MS-13 gang, Reuters reported Friday.

Facebook is pushing back against the demand in a federal court in California, according to the report. The proceedings and filings of the case are sealed, but Reuters reports that the government gave arguments on Tuesday for a motion to hold the social media company in contempt of court for rebuffing its requests.

The federal government has tussled with a number of big tech companies whose encryption has gotten in the way of investigations. In 2016, Apple and the FBI locked horns in court after agents recovered an iPhone from Syed Farook, one of the shooters involved in the San Bernardino office massacre in 2015, and demanded Apple unlock it. The bureau ultimately broke the encryption without Apple’s help. The issue came up again in November when FBI agents claimed they were unable to access the contents of an iPhone belonging to a shooter who had killed 26 people in a Texas church.

The industry and tech advocates have long maintained that undermining encryption in devices, apps, and other products would require engineers to create backdoors that would degrade everyone’s privacy protections. They have further argued that there are often other ways to access encrypted contents that don’t require backdoors, such as using the fingerprint feature on an iPhone. Law enforcement officials, on the other hand, have contended that there may be cases in which bypassing an encryption quickly could save lives.

It’s unclear what impact Facebook’s current legal conundrum could have on this debate.