According to the document, which was obtained by Rolling Stone, iMessage and WhatsApp provide the FBI with access to more data categories than other platforms, including content and history of messages sent and received. They also cooperate with authorities further if a search warrant is issued, offering data on previous backups, contact lists and even more personal data.
WhatsApp, for instance, is the only one of the nine apps outlined in the document that uses what is called a “pen register,” a surveillance request that captures the source and destination of each message for an individual. WhatsApp produces certain user metadata every 15 minutes in response to a pen register, the FBI says, meaning that even without requesting message content from WhatsApp, the metadata captures who and when someone is messaging, as well as which other users they have 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 ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] told Rolling Stone.
WhatsApp said through a spokesperson that the document "illustrates what we’ve been saying – that law enforcement doesn’t need to break end-to-end encryption to successfully investigate crimes."
"We carefully review, validate, and respond to law enforcement requests based on applicable law, and are clear about this on our website and in regular transparency reports," the spokesperson declared.
The FBI document, titled “Lawful Access,” covers the policies for iMessage, WhatsApp, Line, Viber, Telegram, Signal, Threema, WeChat and Wickr. Telegram and Signal are particularly known for their privacy protections, as Telegram famously only provides IP addresses and phone numbers in a case of suspected terrorism, while Signal only provides the date and time of registration and last date of the app’s use. Neither of the two provides message content to the FBI.
The information further showed that only iMessage, WhatsApp and Line store message content and make it available to federal authorities, while the other six do not disclose message content.
The document was received by Property of the People, a DC-based transparency advocacy group, via a Freedom of Information Act request and later shared with Rolling Stone.
“Privacy is essential to democracy,” Ryan Shapiro, Property of the People’s executive director, told Rolling Stone. “The ease with which the FBI surveils our online data, mining the intimate details of our daily lives, threatens us all and paves the way for authoritarian rule.”