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US Cops Are Asking Facebook to Wiretap More Chats Than Ever Before

In the first six months of 2015, requests for real-time interception of Facebook and WhatsApp users increased 2,133% in the US.
November 12, 2015, 1:30pm
Image: Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr

Cops and feds around the US are wiretapping more Facebook and WhatsApp messages than ever before, according to new data released by the social network this week.

As we keep moving our lives online, criminals do the same, so we can expect that police will follow and investigate crimes online. But the latest government requests report from Facebook revealed an unexpected and dramatic rise in real-time interceptions, or wiretaps. In the first six months of 2015, US law enforcement agencies sent Facebook 201 wiretap requests (referred to as "Title III" in the report) for 279 users or accounts. In all of 2014, on the other hand, Facebook only received 9 requests for 16 users or accounts.

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In case you're wondering, that's a 2,133 percent spike. Privacy experts called it a "massive," "huge," and "crazy" increase.

"It's definitely a surprise," Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist and lawyer at Stanford who has extensively studied surveillance law, told Motherboard in an email.

This spike seems to go against the general trend of wiretaps in the United States.

More surprisingly, this spike seems to go against the general trend of wiretaps in the United States. In 2014 (the last year with public data), wiretaps went slightly down compared to 2013, according to official statistics released by the US government.

What's more staggering is that in 2014, overall, the US government only requested 32 "electronic" wiretaps, according to the official data. Also for comparison, Google has received only 18 and 12 wiretap requests in 2013 and 2014 respectively. So, perhaps, there will be a spike for wiretaps for Google chats in 2015 as well (Google has yet to publish such data for 2015).

A Facebook spokesperson declined 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 respond to follow-up questions but confirmed that the number includes both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Experts aren't sure what could have caused the spike.

"I haven't got a clue," Ross Schulman, a privacy lawyer who works at New America's Open Technology Institute, told me in a Twitter message. "I can't think of a reason for the jump."

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Schulman, as well as Jake Laperruque, a privacy expert and a fellow at New America's Open Technology Institute, speculated that perhaps it has to do with ISIS or the group's supporters using Facebook for recruitment. But that's just a guess until Facebook or the US government offers some insight.

"Without actual transparency from Facebook, there's no way of knowing."

"Without actual transparency from Facebook, there's no way of knowing," Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard. "This highlights a major problem with Facebook's transparency report; without more granularity, we can't really say much about the numbers."

Cardozo said that, perhaps, most of these wiretaps came from a single "out-of-control" US attorney, but there's obviously no way to know. Earlier this week, USA Today revealed that a single state state court judge in Riverside County, California was responsible for 624 wiretap orders in 2014, five times as many as any other judge in the country.

In response to Motherboard's request for comment, a Department of Justice spokesperson said that "we have not seen any change in Title III requests from federal law enforcement from 2014 to 2015."

"We typically see a small handful each year," DOJ spokesperson Peter Carr said in an email.

Who issued these wiretaps on Facebook and WhatsApp, and why, remains a mystery.

This story has been updated to include the DOJ's comments.