It seems that everyone and their mother is opining about the Apple vs FBI debacle in San Bernardino. Even Libertarian presidential candidate, John McAfee has been riding the dead horse into the sunset, even saying he lied about it. There’s another privacy debate going on that could have an even bigger impact in the broader world.
The New York Times’, Matt Apuzzo, brought the issue of Whatsapp vs the Justice Department to the headlines on Sunday. The Justice Department has been trying to figure out how to proceed in preserving a Federal Judge’s wiretap order in an undisclosed investigation. The Justice Department has been “stymied” by the encryption used in Whatsapp. While it’s been reported that this is NOT a case of terrorism it seems to be an important case nonetheless, and it is believed that the suspects are using Facebook owned Whatsapp to communicate.
According to several sources, WhatsApp is the world’s largest mobile messaging service. Facebook bought WhatsApp two years ago for a reported $19 billion dollars, largely due to it’s immense user base.
When simplified in layman’s terms the Apple vs FBI debate would be a debate centered around whether or not the FBI deserved a key to the front door, or more importantly a master key to all the front doors. The WhatsApp debate is about whether or not the government can listen to phone calls, and with a wiretap order signed by a judge, they most certainly can. But how does that transcend to today’s digital world of apps, text messaging and of course the “e” word, encryption.
Technology evolves and today it evolves quicker than it ever has in the past. It seems that every time the government gets their leg up on technology they are facing a new beast.
The hurdle that the Justice Department is facing was manifest to tens of millions during the five season run of the HBO hit series “The Wire”. The detectives trying to bring down some of Baltimore’s most notorious drug gangs had their ducks in a row for a brief minute, and then technology changed.
At the onset of the series the drug dealers were using traditional pagers and payphones in high traffic drug areas. The detectives were able to secure wiretap orders for the payphones most frequented by the suspected drug dealers. The only wiretaps they could use were when a suspect was using that particular phone to respond to a notification on a pager outlined in the order.
By season three though, the tables had turned. The dealers got smarter and “burner” phones had become popular. One gang even went out of their way to drive hundreds of miles away from Baltimore and pick up several “burner” or throw away cell phones in order to keep the detectives off their track.
The District Attorney, Rhonda Pearlman and the captain in charge of those detectives, Cedric Daniels, were in a jam similar to the justice department. Sure the communications on the “burner” phones were able to be monitored but the drug gangs changed phones so often it was nearly impossible to secure wiretap orders as they couldn’t figure out the phones that would be used, in advance.
Eventually they were able to track where the dealers were buying the phones and they were able to secure the wiretaps however not without going through major obstacles.
By season 5 the dealers had turned to picture messages and a code based on images of an actual clock to communicate. Those messages told the dealers where to meet and they discussed all their business by way of face to face communication.
So where does that leave us now? Will Facebook have to comply with a wiretap order and turn over the messages found in the app?
What if they were using Facebook messenger to communicate rather than WhatsApp? Would turning over that information be ok for the Justice Department? What about the American people?
If the suspects in this criminal investigation were using Gmail or Yahoo mail to communicate wouldn’t it be as easy as getting a subpoena to retrieve the messages?
When WhatsApp first came on the scene messages sent on the app passed through the companies severs. At that time it would have been much easier to provide the government the information it needed with wiretap orders. However in 2014 the company moved to a more secure end to end encryption meaning that the data that passes through WhatsApp is gibberish except for the people in the conversation.
This kind of encryption is at the forefront of a huge debate. Businesses, customers and even the United States government need high level encryption to secure sensitive data, prevent identity theft and prevent cyber attacks. Dumbing down encryption comes with serious ramifications. Who draws the line in the sand when it comes to encryption and cyber security?
It seems that the Justice Department isn’t pushing as hard with WhatsApp as they are with the iPhone case. Either could have dangerous implications. Either way, David Simon may be able to help.