WhatsApp and US government involved in battle over breaking encryption to access to user messages

The case comes to light as Apple tussles with the US Justice Department over a similar case and many of the same principles

The US government is attempting to force WhatsApp to break its security so that it can read the messages of a specific user, according to reports.

The Justice Department and the Facebook-owned company are currently locked in a standoff about how to spy on certain messages, according to the New York Times. A judge has allowed the government to look in on the chats of the user, but it can’t do so because those messages are encrypted, reports the New York Times.

The new case shows how the argument over encryption is spreading across the biggest technology companies, putting many of them against the Obama administration. The same dispute is playing out in the UK, as the British government attempts to force tech companies including WhatsApp and Apple to help hack into the phones of their users.

Encryption locks messages so that they can only be read by the device that sent them and the one meant to receive them. Technology companies say that using strong encryption is key to their products, and that weakening it in one case would mean weakening it for all.

Some investigators hope that the problems with WhatsApp’s encryption could be solved by having a judge force WhatsApp to help get information by unlocking the app’s encryption, according to the NYT. Others say that the law should be changed to avoid similar difficulties in future.

But either decision could lead to a major re-writing of wiretapping laws to help governments get into encrypted conversations like WhatsApp. Current laws were written primarily for landline phones that were much easier to break into.

Neither WhatsApp or the government commented on the case to the NYT. But it does not involved terrorism.

The government may be waiting for a useful case that will allow it to escalate the dispute, according to some activists. That is Apple’s claim in a very similar case about the San Bernardino’s shooter’s iPhone, which the company says is simply a way of setting a precedent that it can use in future cases.

“The F.B.I. and the Justice Department are just choosing the exact circumstance to pick the fight that looks the best for them,” Peter Eckersley, the chief computer scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the New York Times. “They’re waiting for the case that makes the demand look reasonable.”

But law enforcement disputed that argument and said that the argument might not need to go to court.

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