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AG Barr to Take On Facebook to Gain Access to WhatsApp Texts

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Photo Credit: PBS.org

By: Susan Malkonovich

Attorney General William Barr and his Justice Department are still battling to gain access to encrypted communications.

They say it is a crucial weapon in the war against crime. At the same time, high-tech firms are arguing that such access generates a very real threat to personal privacy.

Barr took “aim at Facebook’s plan to make WhatsApp and its other messaging services more secure, pressing its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to create a loophole to that goal of full encryption. The Justice Department said that investigators needed lawful access to encrypted communications to fight terrorism, organized crime and child pornography,” the New York Times reported.

“Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes,” Barr noted in a letter to Zuckerberg.

“Mr. Barr’s request was the latest salvo in a yearslong fight by law enforcement officials for access to popular communications platforms that have become increasingly secure. The conflict last came to a head in 2016, when a federal judge ordered Apple to help the F.B.I. unlock an iPhone recovered after the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. The F.B.I. ultimately cracked it without Apple’s help, easing tensions for a time with the tech companies,” the Times added.

“Signed by Barr, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, the letter raises concerns that Facebook’s plan to build end-to-end encryption into its messaging apps will prevent law enforcement agencies from finding illegal activity conducted through Facebook, including child sexual exploitation, terrorism, and election meddling,” reported buzzfeednews.com.

“Security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world,” the Barr letter pointed out. “Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes.”

The letter, according to buzzfeednews.com, “calls on Facebook to prioritize public safety in designing its encryption by enabling law enforcement to gain access to illegal content in a manageable format and by consulting with governments ahead of time to ensure the changes will allow this access. While the letter acknowledges that Facebook — which owns Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram — captures 99% of child exploitation and terrorism-related content through its own systems, it also notes that “mere numbers cannot capture the significance of the harm to children.”

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