April 30, 2020 / 5:32 PM / in a month

FBI head helped Facebook defend encryption he's now fighting

WASHINGTON - April 30 (Reuters) - Christopher Wray, prior to becoming FBI director, argued on behalf of Facebook Inc in defense of encrypted communications as the company was being pressured by the U.S. Justice Department over the issue, according to a court filing and a person familiar with the case.

Wray's work as an attorney about five years ago appears to be at odds with the international push by the Justice Department and U.S. allies to allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to bypass encrypted communications.

Wray himself has been a very public part of that campaign, arguing that finding a way around encryption was key to the fight against terrorism and serious crime.

Only last month, Wray told a cybersecurity conference that internet companies were "increasingly shielding indispensable information about those threats from any form of lawful access -through warrant-proof encryption."

Wray's work for Facebook, which occurred when he was employed as a lawyer for law firm King and Spalding, has not been previously reported.

The FBI said Wray could not comment on the case.

"When he was an attorney in private practice, however, the Director represented his clients' interests and advocated on their behalf," the agency said in a statement.

"Like all other lawyers, his duty of loyalty was to his client, and he did not put his personal views ahead of his clients' interests or allow them to affect the legal work he did for clients. Today, as Director of the FBI, his duty is to act in the best interests of the American people," it said.

Many details of the 2015-2016 case, which addressed U.S. attempts to influence Facebook's encryption plans, remain sealed. The case took place as Facebook-owned WhatsApp communication service was implementing strong encryption for all its users.

A limited amounted of information about it was released by Facebook in a court filing related to a different matter involving its lawsuit against Israeli cyber arms dealer NSO Group.

In that lawsuit being heard in California, Facebook has accused NSO of hacking its users through a now fixed flaw in WhatsApp.

The new court documents released late on Wednesday argue that King & Spalding should not be allowed to represent NSO Group because the firm's past representation of WhatsApp "necessarily involved the provision and exchange of WhatsApp's highly confidential information."

The documents do not specify what the past representation entailed - saying only that it occurred as WhatsApp was implementing its encryption protections. A person familiar with the case said it involved an attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice to pressure WhatsApp over the use of encryption.

NSO denies wrongdoing in that case. King & Spalding declined to comment.

In a statement, WhatsApp did not comment specifically on Wray's past position on encryption, but said that King & Spalding's past work for WhatsApp poses "serious ethical concerns for their representation of NSO today." (Reporting by Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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