Maryland authorities bugged social media apps for the cases

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(TNS) – In pursuit of suspected drug dealers last year, Harford County authorities moved to investigate by obtaining permission from a judge to listen in on the target’s phone conversations.

But in a rare move, they were also able to get a wiretap for his Facebook page, allowing them to listen to audio calls made through the app and monitor activity on the social networking site.

It is common for investigators to obtain warrants to collect information stored in social media accounts. But the Harford case, authorized by a Circuit Court judge in February 2020, was one of only nine wiretaps of social media or digital apps requested by Maryland authorities last year, data shows. communicated to the Maryland judiciary.


People are increasingly relying on social media apps to communicate, instead of phone lines and text messages. Some apps, including Facebook and Instagram, allow users to not only send messages, but also make audio calls.

Court records show that authorities in Maryland had never used wiretaps of social media or apps until 2018, when four such wiretaps were obtained: Anne Arundel received a wiretap for an app , while Dorchester and Talbot counties received wiretaps from social media accounts.

Dorchester County State’s Attorney’s Office William Jones said he did not want to discuss the social media site his office bugged, but also played down its impact.

“Like many other investigative techniques, sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t,” Jones said. “I can’t say we hit any home runs. It’s not like it’s a bargain.

What is available to investigators depends on end-to-end communications encryption. Experts say authorities – despite attempts to force companies to allow them to do so – cannot eavesdrop on encrypted phone calls using the wiretap warrant, while other messaging services offer a encryption option that exposes communications if not enabled.

Although Facebook and Instagram services are not encrypted by default, users can enable this feature manually each time they start a new thread. Other popular apps and devices, such as iPhone’s WhatsApp and FaceTime, are end-to-end encrypted by default, preventing law enforcement officials from eavesdropping.

“I think it’s a reality that when you have a system that allows users to create content to message others, that will be a valuable source of investigative leads for law enforcement,” said said Aaron Mackey, senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. . “What that looks like to me is the use of existing law to access communications… It may be novel that they deployed it in this particular context, and the forces of the order realize that they have this ability.”

Riana Pfefferkorn of the Stanford Internet Observatory said it was no surprise that Facebook complied with a wiretap warrant.

“Where Facebook has the technical ability to comply [with such a court order]they do,” Pfefferkorn said.

Pfefferkorn noted that Facebook announced earlier this year that it would make its direct messaging service for Facebook Messenger and Instagram encrypted by default sometime next year.

“A side effect of moving to encryption is that they will no longer be able to comply,” she said.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Facebook successfully blocked the government from asking it to provide a backdoor to access encrypted communications in a California case in 2018. Prosecutors tried to scorn Facebook after the company refused to help investigators wiretap its Messenger app, but a judge ruled against them.

The case caught the attention of the ACLU, digital privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation and media organizations, who sought unsuccessfully to learn more about the sealed deal.

Mackey said law enforcement shouldn’t be able to monitor everything.

“In a society that is truly free and places meaningful restrictions on government, people should be able to have secure conversations that are free from government surveillance,” he said.

In the Harford case, the disclosure was made in a recent government filing, showing that Harford County Circuit Court Judge Angela Eaves granted the Harford County Narcotics Task Force a wiretap on the Facebook account of a man named Reginald Bolden.

Bolden is one of 22 people charged in the case — nine of them face federal charges, and the case is being handled by Christopher Romano, a longtime assistant U.S. attorney who retired and joined the county staff of Harford State’s Attorney Albert Peisinger. Authorities traveled to Tucson, Arizona as part of the investigation and said they seized 28 firearms, more than 2 kilograms of cocaine, fentanyl pills, cash and cars.

Peisinger said his office simply noticed calls were being made on Facebook and thought about writing an order asking to listen. “It was just good policing,” he said.

The wiretapping app is sealed, but prosecutors explain in the filing how Facebook helped assist in the tracking.

“There was a failure on Facebook’s part to initially include post content and that Facebook was attempting to resolve the issue,” Romano wrote. “Ultimately, Facebook fixed the issue and investigators were able to intercept the content of the messages on Line C.”

Bolden’s defense attorneys declined to comment on the case.

©2021 Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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