A newly released document has highlighted the ongoing controversy over privacy concerns faced by users of messaging apps, with popular apps iMessage and WhatsApp shown to be the “most permissive” for the FBI to access data and content.
The document obtained by Rolling Stone presents an overview of what data can be accessed from nine popular messaging apps.
Entitled “Lawful Access,” the document outlines the ability of law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to “legally access secure content” on the “leading messaging” apps. The nine apps listed are iMessage, Line, Signal, Telegram, Threema, Viber, WeChat, WhatsApp, and Wickr.
Prepared by the FBI’s Science and Technology Branch and Operational Technology Division and dated January 7, 2021, the document summarizes what information can be obtained from the messaging apps, revealing Facebook-owned (now Meta) WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage to be most free with the information provided to law-enforcement agencies.
Most Popular, But Least Secure
WhatsApp came under fire earlier this year after a newly announced software update prompted widespread privacy concerns, and users flocked to Signal and Telegram, including tech billionaire Elon Musk. The company responded by claiming it did not “keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling.”
However, the FBI document shows that such a claim is not entirely true. WhatsApp joins iMessage and Line in committing to handing over “limited” message content of a targeted individual, while others provide no message content at all.
It is also the only app listed to use a pen register. Every 15 minutes, the pen register captures user data including the source, destination, and time of each message, providing a detailed account of the user’s call log and contact.
Further WhatsApp information is provided to the FBI upon use of a court order, which returns “subscriber records,” and a search warrant which returns “address book contacts,” and “blocked users.”
Under the search warrant, WhatsApp will give also details of other users who have the targeted individual in their contacts. While a WhatsApp spokesman attested to Rolling Stone that the company did not provide message content to the FBI, the data which the company does provide still reveals who messages each other, when, and how often, as well as the other contacts in their address book.
“WhatsApp offering all of this information is devastating to a reporter communicating with a confidential source,” Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a senior staff technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Rolling Stone.
Meanwhile Apple’s iMessage also provides “limited” message content, as well as subscriber information, 25 days’ worth of data about iMessage searches, and who searched for the targeted user in iMessage.
However, if the individual uses iCloud backup for messages, the FBI can obtain these backups, meaning the actual message content can be viewed. “You’re handing someone else the key to hold onto on your behalf,” said Mallory Knodel of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The document led Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, to summarize that “the most popular encrypted messaging apps iMessage and WhatsApp are also the most permissive.”
WhatsApp currently ranks as the most popular mobile messaging app, numbering over 2 billion monthly users, with Facebook Messenger and WeChat second and third respectively. Privacy-focused Telegram is now in fifth place, with 550 million users monthly.
Apple’s iMessage is used by 1.3 billion people across the globe, since it comes as standard on the company’s iPhones.
The FBI document also indicated that privacy-oriented messaging apps Signal and Telegram remained true to their original intent, providing the least amount of data to law-enforcement.
Both provided no message content, and Telegram yielded “no contact information” for the FBI even with a court order.
Signal merely provided the date and time that a user registered on the app, as well as the “last date” of the user’s connection to the app.
The newly released document comes after increased attention to Big Tech surveillance and censorship over the last year, particularly with regard to issues such as voter fraud in the 2020 U.S. election, and COVID-19 “misinformation.”