United States authorities demand Facebook to wiretap more FB and WhatsApp chats than ever before
This week, the social networking giant Facebook released new data, according to which, cops and feds around the US are wiretapping more Facebook and WhatsApp messages than ever before.
While most of us keep updating our day to day activities online, criminals these days are not behind. As a result, one can expect that police will follow and investigate crimes online. However, the recent government requests report from Facebook unveiled an unexpected and dramatic rise in real-time interceptions, or wiretaps. While in all of 2014, Facebook received only 9 requests for 16 users or accounts, but on the other hand, in the first half of 2015, US law enforcement agencies sent Facebook 201 wiretap requests (known as “Title III” in the report) for 279 users or accounts.
This means that’s a 2,133 percent spike, which privacy experts called it a “massive,” “huge,” and “crazy” increase.
In an email to Motherboard, Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist and lawyer at Stanford who has widely studied surveillance law told “It’s definitely a surprise.”
What is more astonishing that the spike appears to go against the general trend of wiretaps in the United States. According to official statistics released by the US government, in comparison to 2013, wiretraps in 2014 (the last year with public data) went slightly down.
According to the official data, what is more overwhelming is that in 2014, the US government requested only 32 “electronic” wiretaps overall. Also for comparison, Google has received only 18 and 12 wiretap requests in 2013 and 2014 respectively. So, perhaps, in 2015 as well, there will be a spike for wiretaps for Google chats. Such data for 2015 has yet to be published by Google.
A spokesperson for Facebook refused to comment, saying that “we are not able to speculate about the types of legal process law enforcement chooses to serve.” The spokesperson did not reply to follow-up questions by Motherboard but confirmed that the number includes both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
Experts aren’t sure what could have caused the spike.
In a Twitter message, Schulman, a privacy lawyer who works at New America’s Open Technology Institute, told a Motherboard representative that “I haven’t got a clue. I can’t think of a reason for the jump.”
Jake Laperruque, a privacy expert and a fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute along with Schulman, contemplated that maybe it has to do with the group’s supporters using Facebook for recruitment or ISIS. However, till the time the the US government or Facebook offers some insight, it will remain just a guess.
Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard “Without actual transparency from Facebook, there’s no way of knowing. This highlights a major problem with Facebook’s transparency report; without more granularity, we can’t really say much about the numbers.”
It is likely that many of these wiretaps came from a single “out-of-control” US attorney said Cardozo. However, there is no way to know that is clearly understood. USA Today êarlier this week disclosed that a single state state court judge in Riverside County, California was responsible for 624 wiretap orders in 2014, which is five times as many as any other judge in the country.
“We have not seen any change in Title III requests from federal law enforcement from 2014 to 2015”, responded a Department of Justice spokesperson when Motherboard requested for comment.
“We typically see a small handful each year,“ DOJ spokesperson Peter Carr said in an email.
Who issued these wiretaps on Whatsapp and Facebook, and why, this still remains a mystery.