By Kevin Kelleher
August 17, 2018

The U.S. Department of Justice has asked a judge to force Facebook into breaking the encryption on its Messenger app, a move that could give law enforcement access to communication apps built to maintain user privacy.

Law enforcement officials want to listen to the voice conversations a suspect made in Messenger, Reuters reported Friday. Facebook is contesting DOJ’s request, which was made in connection with a case under seal that is part of an investigation into the MS-13 gang, Reuters said, citing an unnamed source.

If Facebook is forced to break its encryption as the DOJ is asking, it could have implications for other tech companies. Other messaging apps, such as Facebook’s WhatsApp and Signal, offer encryption to maintain the privacy of its users’ texts or voice calls. That could leave many messaging apps more vulnerable not only to law enforcement but also to hackers.

The situation recalls a 2016 battle between the FBI and Apple over access to data on an iPhone owned by a shooter in the terrorist attack on a regional center in San Bernardino, Calif. That battle was not resolved in court, because the FBI got access to the phone’s data without Apple’s help.

President Trump has frequently railed against the MS-13 gang in political speeches, calling members of the gang “animals” and invoking them as a reason for tighter border controls as well as Trump’s attacks on sanctuary laws in U.S. cities.

Legal experts told Reuters that while the U.S. Constitution allows for reasonable searches, including voice calls made over cable and broadband lines, it’s not clear whether courts will extend that access to communication apps such as Messenger and Signal.

Facebook declined to comment on the report.

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