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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.