Why it matters: The U.S. government is requesting that Facebook break the encryption on Messenger to assist in a criminal investigation. However, complying with the request could set a dangerous precedent for other privacy minded companies.
The United States government wants Facebook to break the end-to-end encryption on its Messenger app in order to snoop on a suspect in an ongoing MS-13 criminal investigation. So far, Facebook has not complied with the request.
While the case itself is under seal in California and therefore no public filings are available, three anonymous sources revealed some of the details to Reuters. The Department of Justice argued in court that Facebook should be held in contempt for failing to comply with the government's request. Facebook argues that in order to comply, it would have to completely remove encryption from Messenger for all users. Even for an individual person, which is what the government is asking for, Facebook wouldn't be able to easily remove the encryption.
For clarification, Facebook Messenger is not encrypted end-to-end for normal conversations. However, there is a Secret Conversation feature that allows all messages between two people to be secured where not even Facebook could decrypt it in transit. The MS-13 suspect is likely using this feature to communicate.
If this sounds familiar, a similar thing happened in 2016 after the San Bernardino shooting. The FBI wanted Apple to break into the locked iPhone 5C of Syed Rizwan Farook. A California magistrate judge signed a court order compelling Apple to unlock Farook's iPhone. Apple fought the court order with CEO Tim Cook writing an impassioned customer letter arguing against what he perceived as government overreach. The FBI eventually dropped the case after using a third party company to break into the phone.
If Facebook complies with the government's request, then it could set a dangerous precedent. Major tech companies like Apple have been trying to position themselves as privacy and security minded. Facebook in particular is still facing the ramifications after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian interference campaigns. Companies such as Apple, Signal, WhatsApp (which is ironically owned by Facebook), and Telegram pride themselves on offering apps that allow people to securely and privately communicate with each other.
Additionally, Facebook will likely face the wrath of President Trump given his proclivity for using MS-13 as an example of the problems with America's immigration system.
According to the Reuters article, legal experts say the government must "meet a high legal standard when seeking to obtain phone conversations, including showing there was no other way to obtain the evidence." If the government can prove that Facebook complying is the only way to get evidence, Facebook could be forced to help the government.