How the FBI Read Your Private WhatsApp Messages

Using the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) the American government can now read the contents of your iMessages and all the unencrypted data contained in your WhatsApp messages.

According to an internal bureau document published in Jan 2021 this can be done in as little as 15 minutes.

While the FBI’s collection of messaging and call data is well-known, this newly released document reveals both the speed and scope with which FBI agents can now obtain your personal (and private) information.

While this is particularly relevant to Facebook/Meta’s WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage apps it also applies to many other private messaging apps.

Document Released

Following a Freedom of Information Act request by the nonprofit organisation Property of the People (POTP) the FBI document above was released.

The document consists of an infographic (above) which clearly shows the FBI’s ability to lawfully access message content and information that users once believed to be secure (and encrypted) together with all associated metadata.

The one-page document give useful guidance to privacy-conscious people – including journalists, whistleblowers and activists – while it also helps to dispel the misconceptions about the FBI’s surveillance capabilities in reading the content of any encrypted messages.

According to the document, WhatsApp will now provide the FBI with the ‘unencrypted metadata’ (which by default is stored in every users backup) every 15 minutes in response to a ‘pen register’ surveillance request. (1)

For any targeted individual the data gathered will provide the agency with not only the source and destination of each message but the detailed meta-data of the content in each message.

In other words the FBI can now read all the information stored (by default) in the unencrypted back-up program of all WhatsApp accounts. This is also the data that users once believed to be encrypted and therefore unreadable by anyone other than the recipient of the message.

(1) It should be noted that a pen register is a name given to a device which monitors numbers dialled from a telephone line. The US Federal law prohibits the use of pen register devices unless there is a court order, certain emergency conditions exist, or it is authorised under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

Until the release of this document it was believed that a pen register device could only record the fact that a call had been made… not the contents of the communication.

Messaging Platforms Give Up Data

The messaging apps that the FBI can access include – Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Signal, Telegram, Threema, Viber, WeChat, WhatsApp, and Wickr. These apps are now providing the FBI with detailed logs of ALL the latent data made in each call or communication.

The document also states that the FBI can obtain “limited” content from Apple’s iMessage app. Apple encrypts iMessage, although it does not encrypt the backups made by it in the iCloud – unlike WhatsApp, which has started offering encryption for their users backups last September.

In the FBI document it says…

“Search warrant can render backups of a targeted device. If target uses iCloud backup, the encryption keys should also be provided with content return; can also acquire iMessages from iCloud returns if target has enabled iMessages in iCloud.”

According to the FBI the Chinese-owned WeChat will accept FBI subpoenas for metadata, but they won’t provide records for any accounts created in China.

The FBI document reads.

“For non-China accounts, they can provide basic information (name, phone number, email, IP address), which is retained for as long as the account is active.”

So far Apple hasn’t responded to any inquiries made by the press.

WhatsApp

WhatsApp users should be aware that the FBI can now read the contents of all backed-up data and messages saved within the app because the users default setting is set (by default) to unencrypted.

On receipt of a warrant, WhatsApp will also disclose (to the FBI) which WhatsApp users have an FBI target user in their address books. This is not mentioned on WhatsApp’s law enforcement information page

The full extent to which the FBI is currently collecting metadata isn’t clear.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook’s transparency centre has stated that in the United States between January to June 202 they received 63,657 law enforcement requests.

However Facebook hasn’t revealed any information to show which agencies have made those requests.

After the document was published Facebook/Meta told Rolling Stone ;

“The document illustrates what we’ve been saying – that law enforcement doesn’t need to break end-to-end encryption to successfully investigate crimes.”

FBI Response

The FBI has long argued that end-to-end encrypted chat platforms hinder their investigations into a number of crimes, from ransomware to child pornography to domestic terrorism.

This is what FBI Director Christopher Wray had to say during a congressional hearing last September….

“I can’t overstate the impact of default encryption and the role it’s playing, including on terrorism.

The information that will allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff, in terms of social media, is being able to – with lawful process – get access to those communications, where most of the meaningful discussions of the violence is occurring.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation Says…

Technologists for the Freedom of the Press Foundation seem to be in agreement with Facebook in saying that the FBI’s access to messaging metadata should be enough for FBI agents to be able to conduct investigations.

However, the FPF’s Chief Information Security Officer, Harlo Holmes expressed his concern when he noted that on traditional calls law enforcement agencies could previously only collect from a few data points – such as the phone numbers involved in the conversation.

Now the FBI can collect troves of information on IP addresses, the port and protocols used, date, time, location and much much more.

Using Facebook as an example Holmes explained…

“Facebook is pretty much saying, ‘You have a couple of tools if you know how to use them’.

Which means they can now use the data acquired via WhatsApp to pivot onto another legal request.”

And Finally….

The information detailed in this document serves to underscore the broad sweep of U.S. electronic surveillance law which, in response to a 2703(d) order or search warrant, allows investigators to demand any “information pertaining to a target subscriber”.

While Apple and Facebook/Meta have both fought for their users privacy against these overreaching government demands, US law nevertheless renders most of their users private data fair game.

It follows therefore that if users believe the ‘encrypted’ apps they’re using don’t keep much information about them, then the FBI chart above should show them that their belief is largely false.

There’s hope.

If you are concerned about your messaging privacy, then use the chart above (together with privacy and security guides specific to your situation, such as journalism or protests) to help you decide which app is best for you – and then share it with the people you chat with.

That way, you can make a more informed decision about which app(s) to keep (and which to leave behind) as we enter this new era of government surveillance.

Our thanks go out to the government-transparency nonprofit Property of the People (POTP) organisation, (run by “FOIA guru” Ryan Shapiro and indefatigable lawyer Jeffrey Light), for obtaining this record under the Freedom of Information Act.

Rambling in Pen leaves you now with a tune by T Rex because you’re ALL the Children of the Revolution’

Peace and Tranquility.

Authors: Anonymous/Ken Silva 

Edited by: Rambling In pen