Brazil vs. WhatsApp: Everything you need to know

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

whatsapp
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.

Social Media

Walkie-talkie voice messaging finally comes to Instagram

In its latest grab from messaging apps, Instagram now lets you send walkie-talkie style voice messages. Apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and iMessage have offered the feature for some time.
Social Media

This event topped Facebook’s biggest moments of the year — again

As the year comes to a close, Facebook is looking back on what users discussed most over the last year. For two years in a row, International Women's Day topped the list. So what else is on the list?
Mobile

Verizon begins RCS messaging rollout with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

What is RCS messaging? It's the successor to today's text messaging. It offers features like real-time audio, read receipts, and encryption, but adoption so far has been slow. Here's everything you need to know.
Mobile

Google to end support for Android devices running Ice Cream Sandwich

Anyone with an old phone that is still running Android 4.0 may want to look into upgrading their phone, as Google has announced that it will be ending support for this older version of Android.
Mobile

Amazon knocks $30 off its Paperwhite ebook reader in limited-time deal

Amazon is running a couple of limited-time deals for its Paperwhite ebook reader. One offers a $30 discount, while the other throws in a pair of headphones and a free, extended Audible trial.
Mobile

New Galaxy S10 leaks showcase display sizes, confirm headphone jack return

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.
Product Review

The iPad Pro is the best tablet ever. But don't sell your laptop just yet

Apple has unveiled a big redesign for the iPad Pro, slimming down the bezels, adding Face ID, and the ability to attach and charge the Apple Pencil. All of this comes at a high cost however, as the iPad Pro starts at $799.
Mobile

Android 9.0 updates to stretch into 2019 -- will your phone get a slice of Pie?

Android 9.0 Pie has been released. But is your phone getting Android 9.0 Pie, and if so, when? We've done the hard work and asked every device manufacturer to see when their devices would be getting the update.
Mobile

LG G7 owners experiencing dreaded bootloop will have to wait a few days for fix

If you’ve picked up LG’s flagship and it’s not behaving itself, then you might find a solution here. We’ve rounded up the most common LG G7 ThinQ problems and tracked down workarounds and possible fixes.
Mobile

A render video gives us a 360-degree look at the midrange Pixels

The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are considered to be two of the best Android smartphones, but it looks like Google could be prepping a midrange line. Say hello to the Pixel 3 Lite and Pixel 3 Lite XL.
Mobile

Honor to out-megapixel the competition with 48MP camera on upcoming View 20

After its phenomenal success with the View 10 in 2018, it looks like Honor is getting ready up the ante with its forthcoming Honor View 20. Here's everything we know about it so far.
Mobile

Xiaomi is preparing to set records with 48-megapixel phone camera

Bigger doesn't always mean better, but it certainly makes headlines. Chinese mobile giant Xiaomi is set to release a phone camera with a staggeringly large 48 megapixels on a single sensor.
Apple

Patent highlights Apple's sky-high ambitions for AirPower wireless charger

At its September event last year, Apple unveiled the AirPower -- its new wireless charging mat that will allow you to charge multiple devices at one time. It has not yet been released. Here's everything we know about the device so far.
Deals

Check out the best Green Monday deals for those last-minute gifts

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone, but that doesn't mean you've missed your chance of finding a great deal. We're talking about Green Monday, of course, and it falls on December 10.