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The big picture: The government's increasing requests for private data

A phone with tech company logos on it
A phone with Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon apps. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Federal investigators are in a battle with Facebook trying to force the tech company to unlock end-to-end encryption on its Messenger app so they can eavesdrop on a specific user as part of an investigation into the MS-13 gang.

The big picture: Despite Facebook's effort to thwart the government's access to private data, it isn't uncommon for agencies to request similar data from tech companies including giants like Google and Apple.

Between the lines: Though this particular data request is larger than average, tech companies are queried for data thousands of times per year from federal agencies.

Flashback: A similar situation arose with Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2016 when investigators requested Apple help gain entry into an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who carried out the 2015 San Bernardino shooting that resulted in the deaths of 14 people.

The company denied the request, citing the precedent it would set moving forward and potential ethical issues that could arise from it. Apple asserted that forcing the company to write a new software code allowing it to unlock the phone would violate freedoms protected by the First Amendment rights.

  • Investigators were worried that they wouldn't be able to figure out the phone's four digit passcode without using all of the allotted 10 tries and wiping its data.
  • The FBI eventually paid hackers to get into the phone, which allowed the bureau to drop the case against Apple.

The bottom line: The government requesting access to protected data is a regular occurrence for the tech industry and most often play a role in a larger investigation. However, the tech industry has vigorously protected its rights and the rights of users and that is unlikely to change any time soon.