WhatsApp Encryption Said to Stymie Wiretap Order
WASHINGTON — While the Justice Department wages a public fight with Apple over access to a locked iPhone, government officials are privately debating how to resolve a prolonged standoff with another technology company, WhatsApp, over access to its popular instant messaging application, officials and others involved in the case said.
No decision has been made, but a court fight with WhatsApp, the world’s largest mobile messaging service, would open a new front in the Obama administration’s dispute with Silicon Valley over encryption, security and privacy.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, allows customers to send messages and make phone calls over the Internet. In the last year, the company has been adding encryption to those conversations, making it impossible for the Justice Department to read or eavesdrop, even with a judge’s wiretap order.
As recently as this past week, officials said, the Justice Department was discussing how to proceed in a continuing criminal investigation in which a federal judge had approved a wiretap, but investigators were stymied by WhatsApp’s encryption.
The Justice Department and WhatsApp declined to comment. The government officials and others who discussed the dispute did so on condition of anonymity because the wiretap order and all the information associated with it were under seal. The nature of the case was not clear, except that officials said it was not a terrorism investigation. The location of the investigation was also unclear.
Some investigators view the WhatsApp issue as even more significant than the one over locked phones because it goes to the heart of the future of wiretapping. They say the Justice Department should ask a judge to force WhatsApp to help the government get information that has been encrypted. Others are reluctant to escalate the dispute, particularly with senators saying they will soon introduce legislation to help the government get data in a format it can read.