The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a motion to find out what went on in a court case in which the US Department of Justice allegedly tried to make Facebook give it unencrypted access to Messenger calls.
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Claims about the secret filings first emerged in August, when the government wanted the backdoor to help their investigation into the MS-13 gang, one of President Donald Trump's favourite examples of crime gangs.
The ACLU believes the DoJ tried to have Facebook held in contempt of court for refusing (because it would have undermined security for all users) – but nobody knows for sure, because the proceedings are secret.
In a filing to the US District Court (eastern California district) the ACLU, along with the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Stanford Law School's Riana Pfefferkorn (acting in her personal capacity), hopes to get that secrecy removed.
The ACLU said it wants "legal arguments and analysis" from the government and the court, not whatever technical evidence was given. "We emphasized to the court that we would not object to appropriate redactions made to protect any details that would hamper legitimate law enforcement investigations." Which is a pity, because it would be useful to know why the Feds are so convinced of the feasibility of what they demanded.
"This need for transparency is especially true when it comes to surveillance, where the government has a track record of hiding from public oversight," the ACLU continued.
Specifically, the ACLU wants any sealed docket sheets, court orders on sealing requests, the associated judicial rulings, and legal analysis.
Facebook's public claim has always been that it can't decrypt Messenger conversations because it doesn't hold any of the keys involved – those are known only to the participants in a conversation. Changing that would require a redesign of the system, so as to decrypt messages on their way through Facebook's infrastructure.
As readers know, a similar debate is playing out in Australia, where its parliament is currently considering a law to force providers to cooperate with law enforcement demands to access encrypted messages.
Another hint that the demand for decryption was denied came when the FBI charged 16 suspected members of MS-13. In its affidavit, a footnote said "currently, there is no practical method available by which law enforcement can monitor" calls on Messenger. ®