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Federal Agents Can’t Access Messenger Data, Judge Rules

— October 11, 2018

Federal Agents Can’t Access Messenger Data, Judge Rules

Federal prosecutors have requested that Facebook allow them to access the voice calls made through the platform’s Messenger app via wiretapping to help with an investigation of MS-13 gang members.  MS-13 also known as Mara Salvatrucha is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and they have since spread to other areas of the U.S.  Members have tattoos covering the body.  They are notorious for their violence.

Prosecutors entered a motion asking a federal district court to hold Facebook in contempt after the company declined to comply with the request.  This effort immediately got the attention of technology executives and privacy advocates who have sought to restrict the government’s intrusion into private messages.  Telecommunications companies are required to give police access to calls under federal law, but many internet-based apps are exempt.  Facebook argued Messenger was covered by that exemption.

Arguments were heard in a sealed proceeding in a U.S. District Court in Fresno, California weeks before sixteen suspected gang members were indicted there, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Oberto of U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of California ruled in Facebook’s favor.  Since Messenger is entirely internet-based, she ruled the social media giant’s argument was valid.  All documents regarding the proceedings remain sealed, and the case is ongoing.

Federal Agents Can't Access Messenger Data, Judge Rules
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“I would be interested in seeing or trying to get an order unsealing that information to properly represent my client,” Mark Broughton, an attorney for one of the defendants, Denis Barrera-Palma, said.  Barrera-Palma faces is facing federal counts of assault with a deadly weapon and drug conspiracy, and California charges of murder conspiracy.  He has pleaded not guilty to the federal counts and has not yet entered a plea in state court.

“Currently, there is no practical method available by which law enforcement can monitor these calls,” FBI Special Agent Ryan Yetter wrote in an affidavit.

The Messenger app in itself includes features designed to ensure messages remain private.  While Vyas Sekar, a faculty member of CyLab at Carnegie Melon University and a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, contends, “Anything can be hacked,” Facebook’s app is equipped with a fair amount of security, which makes it difficult for outsiders to access users’ messages.

Facebook has indicated that its app uses the same secure communications protocols as banking and shopping sites to protect user information and includes additional protection to stop spam and malware.  In 2016, Facebook added an additional security feature called “secret conversations.”  The messages are end-to-end encrypted, meaning not even Facebook can access them.  Users must choose to activate this added encryption on Facebook Messenger.

Court documents indicate that the FBI was running traditional wiretaps and receiving texts sent via Messenger.  However, allowing the government to have access to the messages would have ramifications that extend beyond the MS-13 investigation.  It could open the floodgates for allowing federal agents to access internet-based conversations.

Either way, “The ruling protecting Facebook from weakening or removing its encryption on Messenger will likely have ramifications going forward as a precedent for protecting users’ privacy in future cases, too,” reported The Verge.


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