Brazil vs. WhatsApp: Everything you need to know

A Brazilian prosecutor just froze $11.7 million of Facebook's funds

Facebook’s WhatsApp has been in hot water in Brazil in recent months over its encryption policies, which have led Brazilian judges to block the messaging service three times since December 2015. Now, a Brazilian prosecutor has frozen 38 million reals, or $11.7 million U.S., of Facebook funds.

The blocks of the popular messaging app stem from the tech company’s refusal to assist in various criminal investigations — WhatsApp says since messages between users are end-to-end encrypted, so it can’t decipher them and offer user data to the government. The frozen funds reportedly reflect the fines issued to WhatsApp and Facebook for failing to follow through on a court order to turn over this user data, according to Reuters.

Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Previous clashes

Earlier this month, Brazillian judge Daniela Barbosa ordered a nationwide shutdown of WhatsApp’s messaging services in response to the company’s refusal to fork over data “relevant to [an] ongoing investigation.” But hours later, the country’s supreme court suspended the ruling. That seems to be the trend, as the other blockages ended earlier than ordered. 

In reversing Barbosa’s decision, Brazil’s highest court also vacated a penalty of $50,000 per day levied earlier on WhatsApp for “failure to adhere” to the lower court’s mandates. “[The judgment was] scarcely reasonable or proportional,” said supreme court President Ricardo Lewandowski.

It’s was the third time WhatsApp had been shut down in Brazil. The messaging service maintains that it does not retain the information that the government is seeking, and that even if it did, it would not be able to decode it. In April, the service instituted end-to-end encryption, effectively preventing it from intercepting, on a technical level, communications between its users. It’s largely a philosophical choice — WhatsApp CEO and co-founder Jan Koum has historically expressed opposition to “compromising the security of our billion users around the world” via backdoors for law enforcement around its security measures.

“In recent months, people from all across Brazil have rejected judicial blocks of services like WhatsApp. Indiscriminate steps like these threaten people’s ability to communicate, to run their businesses, and to live their lives,” Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, told Digital Trends previously. “As we’ve said in the past, we cannot share information we don’t have access to.”

Law enforcement around the world are increasingly finding it difficult to access devices to aid criminal investigations — that’s thanks to more and more companies turning on encryption in smartphones and other devices by default. Brazilian authorities aren’t shy about tackling these major tech companies, and similar incidents have taken place before, including two other clashes with WhatsApp.

A Brazilian court froze $19.5 million reals — the equivalent of $6 million U.S. — of the messaging app’s parent company, Facebook, in early July for failing to fork over data federal police have demanded as part of an international drugs investigation that began in January.

In April, a court punished the service under similar circumstances: refusal to supply data relevant to a drug smuggling investigation. It instituted a countrywide, 72-hour ban on WhatsApp, but another judge intervened and overturned Judge Marcel Montalvao’s ruling. In March, police detained Diego Dzodan, a Facebook vice president based in Brazil, for failing to cooperate with a court order seeking data from WhatsApp. He was released less than a day later.

On May 2, Judge Montalvao ordered companies to block the popular messaging app. The reason for the ban was not disclosed, because the ruling was made in regard to an ongoing case in the country. Before the ban was lifted, WhatsApp expressed its disappointment in the judge’s ruling.

“After cooperating to the full extent of our ability with the local courts, we are disappointed a judge in Sergipe decided yet again to order the block of WhatsApp in Brazil,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told Digital Trends when the ban took place. “This decision punishes more than 100 million Brazilians who rely on our service to communicate, run their businesses, and more, in order to force us to turn over information we repeatedly said we don’t have.”

That ban didn’t last long. Brazilians voiced their frustrations on social media over being unable to communicate with people through the popular messaging app. WhatsApp’s lawyers appealed the ruling, and another judge overturned the ban, according to Reuters.

In December 2015, WhatsApp refused to comply with a court order, according to newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, which asked the company to turn over data for a criminal investigation. When the company didn’t comply, a judge ordered WhatsApp to be blocked for 48 hours. That ban was lifted within 12 hours following tremendous outrage on social media.

Of course, these kinds of arguments between law enforcement and tech companies over encryption aren’t just happening in Brazil. A similar situation recently played out between Apple and the FBI. The FBI wanted access into the locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters. Apple complied at first, but when it faced a court order asking the company to build a special “tool” that would create a backdoor into the device, Apple refused. The Cupertino, California, company is worried, along with most in the tech industry, that creating such a tool could jeopardize the privacy and security of its customers, especially if it falls into the wrong hands.

As more and more companies turn to encryption to protect their users’ privacy, there will undoubtedly be many more conflicts over user data in criminal investigations.

Article originally published on 5-2-2016. Updated on 07-28-16 by Julian Chokkattu: Added news of a Brazilian prosecutor freezing $11.7 million of Facebook funds.

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