The US has been secretly tracking a group of Chinese users of the popular messaging service WhatsApp since November, possibly in an effort to halt illegal opioid sales, Forbes has reported.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ordered WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, to track seven users based in China and Macau, a move authorised by the Pen Register Act, which allows such tracing without an explanation of the reasons for the monitoring, according to the report, which was posted online on Monday (Jan 19).
Citing a recently unsealed surveillance application filed in an Ohio court, Forbes said that DEA agents — without knowing the identities of any of those targeted — ordered WhatsApp to track the IP addresses and numbers with which the targets were communicating, as well as when and how they were using the app.
The DEA did not seek the content of any messages; WhatsApp could not have provided any because its service features message encryption, Forbes said.
According to the report, this case was likely connected to an investigation into efforts by Chinese individuals and entities to ship opioids to the US. Forbes cited a number in the court filing that had been found on a Facebook page where chemicals were being sold by a company promising "research" chemicals.
Shipments of fentanyl and other deadly opioids to the US has been one of many issues fraying relations with China, and the dispute has escalated as overdoses in America have surged in recent years.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in July a record 93,000 drug overdoses in the country in 2020, with fentanyl and its analogues accounting for most cases.
Under the Pen Register Act, federal agents only need to provide three elements to justify tracking of the app users: the identity of the lawyer or law enforcement officer making the application; the identity of the agency making the application; and a certification from the applicant that "the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by that agency".
"Other than the three elements described above, federal law does not require that an application for an order authorising the installation and use of a pen register and a trap and trace device specify any facts," the government wrote in its surveillance warrant, according to Forbes.
Facebook parent Meta Platforms did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the DEA order.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.