Facebook reportedly asked by US government to help wiretap Messenger

That would mean breaking encryption on the chat app.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

Facebook faces a wiretap request from the US government.


The US government has reportedly asked Facebook to help wiretap its Messenger chat app to listen to a suspect's conversations in a criminal investigation, according to a report Friday by Reuters. That would involve breaking the encryption on the app, which is used by more than a billion people a month.

The probe is related to the MS-13 gang in Fresno, California, according to Reuters, which cited unnamed sources. The case is under seal in a federal court in California, so no public filings are available.

But Reuters said the US government argued before a judge Tuesday to hold Facebook in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate.

The case reportedly has to do with voice calls on Facebook Messenger, which the company says are encrypted end-to-end. That means the conversations are not decipherable to the company, and Facebook has argued that "it can only comply with the government's request if it rewrites the code relied upon by all its users to remove encryption," the Reuters report says.

The Department of Justice didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Facebook declined to comment.

The probe comes as Silicon Valley giants grapple with the bounds of data collection and surveillance. In 2016, Apple was embroiled in a high-profile battle with the FBI after refusing to break into the iPhone of a mass shooter in San Bernardino, California.

More broadly, Facebook still faces distrust from users over its stewardship of the personal information of the 2 billion people who use the platform monthly. The company is reeling from a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a digital consultancy that misused the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users. 

CNET's Laura Hautala and Sean Hollister contributed to this report. 

Disclosure: Sean Hollister's wife works for Facebook as an internal video producer.

First published Aug. 17 at 2:24 p.m. PT.
Update at 3:12 p.m. PT: Adds that Facebook declined to comment.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET's newsstand edition.