cyber security

Why is Brazil trying to block WhatsApp?

Is a total ban on the popular app, WhatsApp, the right way to go?

The debate about online privacy versus the battle against crime was given new life this week with an attempt in Brazil to ban the popular messaging application WhatsApp.

A well-known and strict judge in a regional area of Brazil issued a court order banning WhatsApp for 72 hours in the whole country on Monday, because of problems he was having getting information from the company that owns the app.

That company is Facebook, which bought the app for US$19 billion in 2014, and it was allegedly not cooperating by handing over data from customers in a drug-running case that the judge was presiding over.

One billion users

The app has become very popular with smartphone users in many parts of the developing world since it provides a free messaging service that rivals SMS.

In February this year, the company said the app was used by one billion people, nearly one in seven people on the planet. The number of users in Brazil is said to be about 100 million people.

But the issue with WhatsApp and other similar apps, including Wickr, is that they guarantee end-to-end encrypted communications. It’s this feature that is very popular with those who value personal privacy.

For criminals, it provides a secure channel for avoiding surveillance of any kind. The only way their planning and operations can be accessed by law enforcement agencies, if they are communicated via WhatsApp, is with the cooperation of the company holding the data.

But Facebook says it has no power to access the user data anyway. This case appears to echo the same sentiments as those displayed in the recent Apple versus FBI mobile phone incident.

WhatsApp’s co-founder and CEO Jan Koum issued a statement via Facebook explaining why it did not have the data the court was requesting:

Yet again millions of innocent Brazilians are being punished because a court wants WhatsApp to turn over information we repeatedly said we don’t have. Not only do we encrypt messages end-to-end on WhatsApp to keep people’s information safe and secure, we also don’t keep your chat history on our servers. When you send an end-to-end encrypted message, no one else can read it – not even us.

Different cultures

The case is another instance of the lack of clarity between large US-based telecoms and social media companies over collaboration and cooperation with international governments.

The issue of access to and use of data collected from social media is again happening in a framework of different cultures, varying unexplored attitudes to privacy and within authoritarian legislative systems.

This case had a short term (and potentially longer term) and successful conclusion. The WhatsApp suspension was lifted after 24 hours by another judge.

But this is not the first time the WhatsApp service has been banned in Brazil. In December 2015, it was banned for 48 hours. This was also lifted after about 12 hours.

Then, in March, the same Brazilian judge who ordered this week’s ban ordered the vice president of Facebook in Latin America, Diego Dzodan, to be detained by authorities regarding lack of access to WhatsApp data. He was released after 24 hours.

In all cases, the aim of the judges has been to obtain information about alleged criminal activities such as drug trafficking. The approach may seem heavy-handed, but that could be about to change.

Brazil is looking at changes to its legislation governing the use of the internet that could see an end to any attempts to shut down any app across the whole country.

One reform, proposed by lower house deputy Esperidião Amin, would allow the blocking of specific individuals or IP addresses suspected of illicit activity.

“It’s less dramatic than withdrawing the service from the whole of the Brazilian population,” he told Reuters.

Across borders

But this latest case highlights several issues. First, there is an ongoing debate about the nature of the internet and social media. Liberal democracies have an expectation of a right to privacy, but within them, there is an equal demand for efficient law enforcement, solutions to major crime and provision of national security and protection from terrorism.

Second, companies such as Facebook need to walk carefully and work across different cultures and legal systems to achieve the balance between the demands for security and privacy. It’s often hard to see how these can be achieved.

Third, cybersecurity and privacy legislation is still in its infancy in many under-developed economies and advanced applications are being accessed in economies where the legal boundaries are not clear.

Thankfully, it is very hard to envisage a situation such as this occurring in a country such as Australia, where there has been a more engaged debate over the tension between technology, legislation and privacy.

In more developed economies, the problems that arise from the tension between privacy and national security have had much more debate, but have not necessarily been resolved for all citizens.

Jill Slay, Director, Australian Centre for Cyber Security, UNSW Australia

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What are racers made of?

Grit, strength and oodles of fearlessness.

Sportspersons are known for their superhuman discipline, single-minded determination and the will to overcome all obstacles. Biographies, films and documentaries have brought to the fore the behind-the-scenes reality of the sporting life. Being up at the crack of dawn, training without distraction, facing injuries with a brave face and recovering to fight for victory are scenes commonly associated with sportspersons.

Racers are no different. Behind their daredevilry lies the same history of dedication and discipline. Cornering on a sports bike or revving up sand dunes requires the utmost physical endurance, and racers invest heavily in it. It helps stave off fatigue and maintain alertness and reaction time. It also helps them get the most out of their racecraft - the entirety of a racer’s skill set, to which years of training are dedicated.

Racecraft begins with something as ‘simple’ as sitting on a racing bike; the correct stance is the key to control and manoeuvre the bike. Riding on a track – tarmac or dirt is a great deal different from riding on the streets. A momentary lapse of concentration can throw the rider into a career ending crash.

Physical skill and endurance apart, racers approach a race with the same analytical rigour as a student appearing in an exam. They conduct an extensive study of not just the track, but also everything around it - trees, marshal posts, tyre marks etc. It’s these reference points that help the racer make braking or turning decisions in the frenzy of a high-stakes competition.

The inevitability of a crash is a reality every racer lives with, and seeks to internalise this during their training. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, racers are trained to keep their eyes open to help the brain make crucial decisions to avoid collision with other racers or objects on the track. Racers that meet with accidents can be seen sliding across the track with their heads held up, in a bid to minimise injuries to the head.

But racecraft is, of course, only half the story. Racing as a profession continues to confound many, and racers have been traditionally misunderstood. Why would anyone want to pour their blood, sweat and tears into something so risky? Where do racers get the fearlessness to do laps at mind boggling speed or hurtle down a hill unassisted? What about the impact of high speeds on the body day after day, or the monotony of it all? Most importantly, why do racers race? The video below explores the question.

Play


The video features racing champions from the stable of TVS Racing, the racing arm of TVS Motor Company, which recently completed 35 years of competitive racing in India. TVS Racing has competed in international rallies and races across some of the toughest terrains - Dakar, Desert Storm, India Baja, Merzouga Rally - and in innumerable national championships. Its design and engineering inputs over the years have also influenced TVS Motors’ fleet in India. You can read more about TVS Racing here.

This article has been produced by Scroll Brand Studio on behalf of TVS Racing and not by the Scroll editorial team.