Not all chat services handle the data of their users in the same way. Some of them share sensitive information with the authorities.

How much private information do chat apps pass on?

Internal FBI document shows which messengers share how much data

An internal FBI document provides information about this.

Internal FBI Document shows which messengers share how much data

It describes how much data nine specific chat apps share with the American authorities.

That's what

  • The American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can read data from certain messenger services.

  • Which exactly shows an internal document.

  • This summarizes which data can be read from nine popular chat apps.

  • In three of these apps, the FBI potentially has access to chat content.

A question that many users ask themselves when deciding which chat service to use is: How does the messenger handle my private data? A little insight into the answer to this question is provided by an internal FBI document that was published in response to a request for freedom of information from the non-profit organization Property of the People. This shows which data the FBI can legally request from which chat apps.

Specifically, the document shows how the FBI deals with nine different chat services. These include iMessage, Line, Signal, Telegram, Threema, Viber, WeChat, Whatsapp and Wickr. In three of these messengers, the FBI apparently has access to chat content itself. However, this is not possible with the remaining six chat services. The document is dated January 7, 2021 – so it is very up-to-date. We have compiled the exact information the FBI can call up here.


The FBI has access to a whole range of data on Whatsapp. For example, access to the chat backups in the cloud can be allowed in the course of legal proceedings. In addition, the authorities can relatively easily find out who is behind a certain Whatsaspp profile. With a court order, it is also possible for the FBI to call up further data about the user in connection with their Facebook profile. For example, blocked profiles can be displayed. A search warrant also gives the authorities access to the entire contact list of a profile.


With iMessage, too, the FBI has limited access to chat content, as with Whatsapp. Here, too, the chat backups can be viewed using a search warrant. In addition, the FBI can use the appropriate court order to find out who is behind a particular profile.


With Signal, it becomes more difficult for the FBI to view information about users or even chat content. In fact, all the authorities can do is know when a particular account was created and when the profile was last used.


The FBI also has no access to chat content with the Swiss messaging app Threema. Only hashes – i.e. long numerical codes – for the telephone number and email address can be read out, if these were provided by the user. You can also see when a Threema account was created and when the user last logged into the profile. The push tokens and the public key for encryption are also known.

That's what Threema says about the FBI document

Threema is not happy about the published FBI document. “The alleged FBI document mentioned is unfortunately largely incorrect or in need of interpretation,” said Julia Weiss, Threema spokeswoman. «The author has apparently only relied on the information provided by the respective provider, which unfortunately is often incomplete with our competitors. In view of the key icons at Threema, for example, they did not understand that with asymmetric cryptography – on which all messengers that offer end-to-end encryption are based – the public key is always public. That's why it's called that. You can't decrypt messages with it, only encrypt them. »

In addition, the fact that the competitors knew their mobile phone number was ignored, as it was the address at which participants could be reached. “Threema, on the other hand, can be used completely without specifying any personal data – linking to a mobile phone number is optional,” says Weiss. In principle, Threema does not respond to inquiries from the FBI. “Foreign authorities always have to submit a request for mutual legal assistance in Switzerland, which has to be checked by the responsible public prosecutor's office,” explains Weiss. Further information on the frequency and conditions for information from Threema can be found in the transparency report.


Messages can also not be read with Telegram. In addition, the FBI cannot legally obtain any further data from Telegram users. The only exception is a court-confirmed anti-terror investigation. In the course of such an investigation, IP addresses and telephone numbers can be passed on to relevant authorities.


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By Teresa Tapmleton

Teresa Tampleton has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Nizh TEkegram, Teresa Tampleton worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7341

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