- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Details about the government’s failed effort to wiretap encrypted calls made over Facebook’s Messenger app must remain secret, a federal court judge ruled.

U.S. Chief District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill, ruling from federal court in Fresno, California, issued Monday a five-page order denying motions filed by groups seeking access to sealed documents involving an unsuccessful bid quietly mounted by the Justice Department last year to eavesdrop on Facebook Messenger calls related to an investigation of the MS-13 criminal gang.

“The materials at issue in this case concern techniques that, if disclosed publicly, would compromise law enforcement efforts in many, if not all, future wiretap investigations,” wrote Judge O’Neill, an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

The judge’s order addressed separate but similar motions to unseal files last year after Reuters first reported the Justice Department sought to force Facebook to help investigators wiretap certain calls conducted over the social network’s Messenger app.

Facebook reportedly argued that Messenger calls are encrypted in a manner that would require the company to rewrite the app’s code to heed the government’s request, meaning that complying would involve subverting the encryption used to secure the communications of more than a billion other users.



Prosecutors responded by attempting to have Facebook held in contempt for refusing to comply, though the court ultimately issued a seal opinion in the social network’s favor, several news outlets reported in October.

Lawyers representing groups including the American Civil Liberties Union subsequently filed motions the following month seeking access to the case’s docket sheet and the court’s analysis, prompting the failed bid resolved by the judge’s order this week.

“The interests of the public are outweighed in favor of nondisclosure based on the relevant facts and circumstances here,” he ruled.

Representatives for both the ACLU and DOJ declined to comment, Reuters reported Monday.

A similar legal fight between the Justice Department and Apple erupted three years earlier when federal prosecutors found themselves unable to access data stored on an encrypted iPhone belonging to a deceased suspected terrorist.

Lawyers for the Obama administration similarly filed a motion in federal court asking for that to be compelled to provide technical assistance, though the government ultimately withdrew its case upon cracking into the phone using the services of a third-party security firm.

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