A search warrant from 2021 shows WhatsApp was ordered to track unidentified users for unknown reasons
WhatsApp was ordered by a US government agency to spy on several foreign nationals, even though the agency had no evidence the users had committed a crime or even knew their names.
A recently unsealed search warrant from November 2021 shows that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had ordered the Facebook-owned communications service to monitor seven users reportedly located in China and Macau.
"The warrant reveals the DEA didn't know the identities of any of the targets, but told WhatsApp to monitor the IP addresses and numbers with which the targeted users were communicating, as well as when and how they were using the app," security and privacy reporter Thomas Brewster wrote for Forbes.
The surveillance was part of an operation investigating the importation of opioids from China. To order the monitoring, the US government only needed to state that "the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by that agency." The search warrant did not require any evidence of a crime having been committed.
Authorities are able to take advantage of such lax procedures due to a 35-year-old law, the Pen Register Act, which was passed through the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 1986. The Pen Register Act allows law enforcement to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by government and means no probable cause has to be provided for the search to take place.
Forbes also discovered that WhatsApp had previously been ordered to monitor four users in Mexico - demonstrating again that the US government's Big Tech surveillance operations go far beyond the country's borders.
"WhatsApp appreciates the work law enforcement agencies do to keep people safe around the world," the company states in its FAQ, adding that it is "prepared to carefully review, validate and respond to law enforcement requests based on applicable law and policy."
A leaked document from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last year showed that WhatsApp was one of the most willing messenger services to provide data to US authorities.
This month, the Swiss military banned WhatsApp, along with competing services Signal and Telegram, citing data protection concerns.