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US DOJ wants Facebook to help wiretap Messenger, report says

The U.S. Department of Justice is reportedly pushing Facebook to disable or otherwise break end-to-end encryption in its Messenger text and voice messaging service as part of a criminal investigation into the MS-13 gang.

Citing sources familiar with an ongoing federal court case in California, Reuters reports the government is attempting to force Facebook into wiretapping Messenger in order to spy on a single person's voice conversations.

The social media giant has so far refused, saying the only way to comply with DOJ demands is to rewrite the encryption code that protects all Messenger users or, alternatively, hack the lone target.

Similar to other messaging products offered by major segment players, including Apple, Facebook's Messenger is end-to-end encrypted, meaning messages can only be viewed by sender and recipient. Messenger's end-to-end encryption technology was previously thought limited to a "Secret Conversations" feature that covers text, photos, and video and audio clips, but Facebook in court claims voice calls are also protected in the same manner.

In any case, Facebook is apparently unwilling to cooperate with the government and its investigation.

In response, prosecutors this week filed a motion to hold the tech company in contempt of court if it failed to comply with the surveillance request. The judge's ruling on the matter could impact the wider industry, as many firms field their own end-to-end encrypted solutions.

As noted by Reuters, if the court decides in favor of the government, the DOJ could use the case as precedent to force other companies to break their respective encryption solutions for surveillance purposes. Apple's iMessage and Facetime, the latter of which offers both video and voice calling, are end-to-end encrypted and would likely be viewed under the same legal auspices as Facebook's Messenger platform.

Apple faced similar issues when a federal judge ordered the company to assist Federal Bureau of Investigation officials in extracting data from a locked iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. Though the agency was ultimately able to gain access to the phone with the help of an outside contractor, Apple's refusal to comply with government orders sparked a debate over consumer privacy and strong encryption.

As the Facebook case is proceeding under seal, documents and filings are not currently available for public viewing.