In pursuit of suspected drug traffickers last year, authorities in Harford County took the investigative step of getting a judge’s permission to listen in on the target’s phone conversations and were also able to secure a wiretap for his Facebook page, enabling them to listen in on audio calls placed through the app and monitor activity on the social networking site, reports the Baltimore Sun. Judiciary reports show authorities in Maryland had never used a social media or app wiretap until 2018, when four such wiretaps were obtained. The Harford case, authorized by a Circuit Court judge in February 2020, was one of only nine social media or digital app wiretaps applied for by authorities in Maryland last year.
What’s available to investigators depends on whether the communications are end-to-end encrypted. Experts say authorities — despite attempts to force companies to allow them to do so — cannot listen in over encrypted phone calls using the wiretap warrant, while other messaging services carry an option of encryption that exposes the communications if not enabled. “I think there’s a reality that when you have a system that allows for users to create content to message others, it will be a valuable source of investigative leads for law enforcement,” said Aaron Mackey, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “What this sounds like to me is use of existing law to access communications. … It is perhaps novel that they have deployed it in this particular context, and law enforcement is realizing that they have this capability.”