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All of Your Messaging App Metadata the FBI Claims It Can Obtain

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Data privacy is a tricky thing. A lot of messaging apps claim to protect your privacy against criminals and corporations, but what about the government? You may see news about digital investigations and ask yourself: “can the FBI use my data?”

An FBI report that recently went public offers some answers. The document, originally from January 2021, details what kinds of data the FBI can legally obtain from various messaging apps. How the FBI can track you makes some of these apps seem less secure than they originally appeared.


What the FBI Can See

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The FBI document goes over nine popular messaging apps: iMessage, Line, Signal, Telegram, Threema, Viber, WeChat, WhatsApp, and Wickr. How the FBI can use your data varies across each app. Here’s a rundown of what they can access from each.

iMessage

iMessage is one of the least secure services as far as what the FBI can see. It can see limited message content, basic user information, contacts, date and time info, encryption keys, sender and receiver information, and even your iCloud backups. Since iCloud stores non-encrypted message backups by default, that gives the FBI access to a lot of content.

Line

The FBI can also access limited message content on Line. Usage information and user info like names, phone numbers, and email addresses are also potentially accessible.

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Signal

Compared to other apps, the FBI can’t obtain much from Signal. It can’t get any message content, so what you say on the app remains private. All the FBI can see is the last date you connected to the service and when you registered for it.

Telegram

Telegram is also highly secure. The FBI can’t obtain any message content or contact information. Telegram may give them IP addresses and phone numbers, but only for confirmed terrorist investigations.

Threema

Threema, which recently gained attention as the only authorized messaging service for the Swiss military, is relatively private as it is not subject to the US Cloud Act, but not as much as some may expect. The FBI can see phone numbers and email addresses, but only if you provide them, some usage data, and login dates. Message content is off-limits.


Viber

While Viber also doesn’t give the FBI access to message content, it’s not the most secure option. Account registration data, IP addresses, time and date info, and messages’ timestamp, data, source, and destination are all accessible.

WeChat

WeChat is more secure for users in China than people in other countries. The FBI can access names, numbers, email addresses, and IP addresses for non-China accounts but not for those within the country. Message content is private for all users.

WhatsApp

WhatsApp is surprisingly not secure, giving the FBI limited message content access, contacts, message sources and destinations, and information like blocked users. Unencrypted iPhone backups may make even more data available.

Wickr

Wickr offers the FBI a considerable amount of information. It can see time and date info, device info, how many addresses and phone numbers are connected to an account, account setting changes, and total message numbers.

How to Maximize Your Privacy

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Remember that there are limits around how the FBI can track you through this data. For most of these apps, investigators need a warrant or subpoena to access any of this information legally. Without a good reason to investigate you, the FBI can’t use your data.

Still, it’s a good idea to take a few extra steps to stay as private as possible. Regulations like the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) require some companies to meet certain security standards, but many recommended steps are optional.

One step that’s often optional that you should turn on is end-to-end encryption. Some apps enable this by default, but go into your settings to make sure it’s turned on just in case. If you don’t have it on, it’s easier for prying eyes to see your messages.

If you have an iPhone, you may want to turn off automatic iCloud backups. Apple does not offer end-to-end encryption for these backups, so they’re potentially visible to the FBI and other parties.

“Secure” Apps Aren’t Always as Secure as They Seem

Many apps claim to be secure, but that doesn’t mean they are in all situations. As these records show, in some circumstances, even the most private apps will give away some information.

Knowing about these issues can help you make the best decision to keep your conversations private. Understand what different apps have to offer and remember that nothing is 100% secure, so be careful what you do and say online.


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