WhatsApp is the latest tech firm battling a US government order to lift security measures, a report claims.
As Apple’s legal battle with the FBI drags on, prosecutors are allegedly engaged in a dispute with the messaging service which allows users to make end-to-end encrypted phone calls.
According to the New York Times, investigators in a sealed criminal case tried and failed to wiretap a suspect’s WhatsApp messages despite a federal judge’s order to access the data.
Ironically, it was the US government which funded the company behind WhatsApp’s encryption system in 2014, turning all data into indecipherable code.
Making his stance clear, without mentioning his firm’s own legal battle, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum threw his weight behind Apple’s Tim Cook in February, saying: ‘We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set… our freedom and our liberty is at stake.’
The news of the WhatsApp case which does not relate to terrorism comes as Apple continues to resist an FBI order to build software to hack into an iPhone 5c belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Though WhatsApp’s case has flown under the radar, a former prosecutor told the New York Times the issue of end-to-end encrypted phone calls is possibly more concerning to prosecutors.
‘As we know from intercepted prisoner wiretaps, criminals think that advanced encryption is great,’ Joseph DeMarco told the Times.
The terrorists behind the Paris attack were said to have been using WhatsApp and another encrypted messaging app, Telegram, to evade law enforcement.
Indeed, last year a counter-terrorism agency claimed to have obtained an ISIS-written tech manual, which cites WhatsApp’s encryption.
End-to-end encryption means only the people involved in the chat can read their messages.
To an outsider, their conversations are simply a mesh of cryptographic keys.
Most messaging services store the keys on a centralized server controlled by the parent company.
However, WhatsApp has integrated the encryption platform TextSecure into its operating system, meaning the keys are only stored in the user’s phone.
As a result, nobody – not even WhatsApp technicians or federal judges – can access the keys to decipher the messages.
When he announced the move, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum said the firm had ‘built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible… Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA.’
It is not the first time Facebook-owned WhatsApp has come to blows with law enforcement over the encryption system.
Last year, a Facebook executive was arrested in Brazil after WhatsApp failed to give a court messages in a drug trafficking case.
The app was then blocked in Brazil – affecting neighboring Latin American countries – for a whole day before a judge agreed the ban was unreasonable.
And the British government is currently pushing a bill forcing companies to install backdoor security measures that weaken encryption systems.
WhatsApp’s encryption service was developed by Open Whisper Systems, a firm which received $900,000 in funding from the US government-backed Open Technology Fund.
Announcing the collaboration in 2014, Open Whisper said it was ‘the largest deployment of end-to-end encrypted communication in history’.
The news release added that the project would be a gradual process, expanding and developing TextSecure protocol support to apply to every aspect of WhatsApp, including group chats.
Insiders who spoke to the New York Times said prosecutors are waiting for the right case before they publicly battle WhatsApp on encryption.
Meanwhile, the congressional verdict on Apple’s fight with the DOJ is imminent.
The Department of Justice added pressure on Apple this week, suggesting the tech giants may be forced to hand over the source code to the entire operating system if they do not assist investigators in unlocking the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.
Apple had previously claimed that the FBI could force them to turn iPhone cameras and microphones into surveillance devices to spy on users.
In the latest episode of the ongoing face-off between privacy and national security, the Justice Department issued a court filing on Thursday that accused Apple of rhetoric which is ‘not only false, but also corrosive’ while suggesting they could up the stakes.
The court filing on Thursday said Apple’s stance was ‘corrosive’ of institutions best able to safeguard ‘our liberty and our rights.’
The department acknowledged Apple’s argument that forcing the company to write code that would unlock Syed Farook’s phone without erasing its contents would be excessive.
However, it then placed Apple between a rock and a hard place, suggesting that the company could simply hand over the entire operating system source code instead.
A footnote in the filing read: ‘The FBI cannot itself modify the software on Farook’s iPhone without access to the source code and Apple’s private electronic signature.
‘The government did not seek to compel Apple to turn those over because it believed such a request would be less palatable to Apple.
‘If Apple would prefer that course, however, that may provide an alternative that requires less labor by Apple programmers.’
The filing also cited a case in 2013, when the FBI tried to force the owners of a secure email service used by whistle blower Edward Snowden to turn over its encryption keys.
When Ladar Levision, owners of the email service Lavabit refused, the courts slapped them with a contempt of court ruling.