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FBI Document Reveals What Information Messaging Apps Can Share with the Law

FBI Document Reveals What Information Messaging Apps Can Share with the Law

Categories: Technology
Posted: November 30, 2021

A leaked FBI document reveals what information messaging apps can share with the law when requested to share user data. The leaked documents came from the FBI's Science and Technology Branch and Operational Technology Division.

FBI Gets 'Lawful Access' to Messenger Apps' Data

An article from Rolling Stone reports that the newly leaked document was initially prepared on Jan 7 with the title of "Lawful Access" as per its header described as the "FBI's Ability to Legally Access Secure Messaging App Content and Metadata. To expand, the document is said to be unclassified but also designed "For Official Use Only" and as "Law Enforcement Sensitive."

The document says that as of Nov of 2020, the FBI's ability to be able to legally access secure content on messaging applications include details on accessible information that is based on the applicable legal process. To add to this, the document also said that the data listed "with the exception of WhatsApp" are logs of latent data provided in a non-real-time-manner which could impact investigations because of the delivery delays.


According to the story by PCMag, the FBI's admission regarding WhatsApp is that it is the only popular, secure messaging app that gives "near-real-time" data in response to requests from law enforcement.

The Document Reveals the Following:

  • Limited message content

  • Ability to render basic subscriber records for subpoenas

  • Subpoenas return, and information like blocked users can be used for court orders

  • Search warrants can ask for address book contacts and WhatsApp users who already have the target in their address book contacts

  • Pen register is sent every 15 minutes, which provides a source and destination for every message

WhatsApp End-to-End Encrypted Backups

The "limited" message content field footnote indicates that should a target use an iPhone and iCloud backups enabled, iCloud returns could contain WhatsApp data which includes message content. The WhatsApp end-to-end encrypted backups that were debuted after the document provide a way to use a workaround.

WhatsApp told Rolling Stone that they can carefully review, validate, and also respond to law enforcement requests that are based on applicable law. With that, WhatsApp remains clear about this on their website and regular transparency reports to the public.

How WhatsApp Complies with the FBI

The company also said that the document illustrates what they have been saying, which is that law enforcement doesn't have to break end-to-end encryption for them to investigate crimes successfully. In addition, WhatsApp confirmed that they offer near-real-time data for them to respond to pen register requests.

For a number of people, having end-to-end encryption communications should be enough protection, and the amount of metadata that is provided to law enforcement shouldn't matter. People that are looking to keep the information private, however, like journalists not wanting to reveal their sources, will be able to get a better idea of the metadata that the apps can share with the FBI.


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