Barr Pushes Facebook for Access to WhatsApp Messages – The New York Times

Facebook’s current encryption system, and its plans to expand those protections, impedes law enforcement’s ability to investigate, they wrote. The encryption on WhatsApp blocks Facebook from gaining access to the information its users send on the platform, similar to the system used by the Signal messaging service, considered to be one of the most thorough at protecting users’ privacy.

“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,” Mr. Barr and the other officials wrote.

They pledged to seek access to Facebook and WhatsApp content only when public safety was at risk. The government official who briefed reporters also challenged the description of the Justice Department’s effort as a push for a “back door.” The term is inaccurate, the official said, because it implies a weakness in the encryption technology that hackers and others could also exploit.

But only platforms that use an encryption system that the company itself cannot break can be protected from hackers. Facebook cannot comply with the government’s new demand without undermining the protections they are trying to provide their users, experts said.

“There is simply no way today way to create an encryption back door that doesn’t undermine encryption broadly,” said Jules Polonetsky, the chief executive of the Future of Privacy Forum.

A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that technology companies and the government should focus not on altering end-to-end encryption systems, but on finding ways for law enforcement to gain access to devices they have lawfully obtained.

The joint letter comes at a somewhat awkward moment for Mr. Barr. His work with Australia and Britain has separately come under scrutiny as he has pressed for both countries’ cooperation with the Justice Department’s review of the origins of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Julian E. Barnes and Katie Benner reported from Washington, and Mike Isaac from San Francisco.


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