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Justice Department considered suing Apple over iMessage encryption

The US Justice Department requested a "wiretap" on messages sent via Apple's iMessage between suspects in a guns-and-drugs case, The New York Times reports. Apple said it couldn't comply since iMessage uses end-to-end encryption.

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Apple refused a Justice Department request to "wiretap" iMessage conversations because the messages are encrypted. Here, Apple CEO Tim Cook takes the stage at an Apple event on September 9, 2015 in San Francisco.

Eric Risberg/AP

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For several years now, messages sent via Apple’s iMessage protocol have been protected via end-to-end encryption. That means data is encrypted at the moment it’s sent, and decrypted only once it reaches its recipient.

Messages pass through Apple’s servers, but the level of security is such that, in practice, they can’t be intercepted and read.

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This summer, the Justice Department obtained a court order in a case involving guns and drugs and demanded that Apple turn over iMessages sent between suspects in the case. Apple’s response was that it couldn’t comply – the encryption prevented it from being able to read the messages, so turning the data over to law enforcement would be useless.

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Now, some senior Justice Department and FBI officials are calling for Apple to be taken to court over the issue, reports The New York Times. Earlier this year, FBI director James Comey argued that tech companies who serve lots of message traffic, such as Apple, Google, and WhatsApp, should build in master keys to bypass end-to-end encryption.

That way, Mr. Comey said, law enforcement agencies could have access to communications when needed to disrupt criminal and terrorist activities.

In response, Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook said at a Washington event that, “Removing encryption tools from our products altogether, as some in Washington would like us to do, would only hurt law-abiding citizens who rely on us to protect their data.”

Part of Apple’s privacy policy reads, “We have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a back door in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”

That said, Apple does keep unencrypted copies of iMessages if users choose to back them up to their iCloud accounts. The Times notes in its report that Apple did hand over copies of those messages to the Justice Department, even though it didn’t (or couldn’t) comply with the government’s request for a real-time wiretap.

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The Justice Department is currently engaged in a similar court dispute with Microsoft over e-mail storage. The case has to do with e-mails sent by a drug trafficking suspect that were stored on a server in Dublin, Ireland. The Justice Department had ordered Microsoft to turn over copies of the e-mails but Microsoft refused, saying officials would need a warrant from an Irish court. That dispute will go before a New York federal appeals court on Wednesday.