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Now WhatsApp may run into encryption problems with US Govt

WhatsApp, the world’s largest mobile messaging service, could be the next technology company to become embroiled in the Obama administration’s dispute with Silicon Valley over encryption, security and privacy.

While the US Justice Department wages a public fight with Apple over access to a locked iPhone, government officials are privately debating how to resolve a prolonged standoff with WhatsApp over access to its popular instant messaging application, the New York Times reports today.

The NYT, citing officials and others involved in the case, said no decision had been made.

WhatsApp owned by Facebook, allows customers to send messages and make phone calls over the Internet. In the last year, said the Times, the company has been adding encryption to those conversations, “making it impossible for the Justice Department to read or eavesdrop, even with a judge’s wiretap order.”

According to the NYT, as recently as this past week, officials said the Justice Department was discussing how to proceed in a continuing criminal investigation in which a federal judge had approved a wiretap, but investigators were stymied by WhatsApp’s encryption.

The Justice Department and WhatsApp declined to comment, said the paper. The government officials and others who discussed the dispute did so on condition of anonymity “because the wiretap order and all the information associated with it were under seal.”

The nature of the case was not clear, except that officials said it was not a terrorism investigation. The location of the investigation was also unclear.

The Times said: “If the Apple dispute is akin to whether the F.B.I. can unlock your front door and search your house, the issue with WhatsApp is whether it can listen to your phone calls. In the era of encryption, neither question has a clear answer.”

Some investigators view the WhatsApp issue as even more significant than the one over locked phones because it goes to the heart of the future of wiretapping. They say the Justice Department should ask a judge to force WhatsApp to help the government get information that has been encrypted.

A senior law enforcement official disputed the notion that the government was angling for the perfect case, and said that litigation was not inevitable.