WhatsApp wins encryption victory in Brazilian courts

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WhatsApp is getting its own day(s) in court.
Photo: Killian Bell/Cult of Android

Apple’s encryption showdown with the U.S. government may be more or less dormant for now, but Facebook-owned WhatsApp has its own courtroom drama happening in Brazil. It scored a slight win today, however, as a judge overturned a decision yesterday that would have shut the whole thing down across the country for several days.

The controversy surrounds the messaging app’s end-to-end encryption. Specifically, the developer’s inability (and/or unwillingness) to crack it to comply with law enforcement requests.

This is all sounding very similar to the Apple controversy, which had the FBI demanding that the iPhone maker create a new version of its operating system that would give authorities access to a dead terrorist’s locked phone. But the shutdown takes things to a whole new level.

Yesterday, Judge Marcel Montalvao imposed the nationwide, 72-hour shutdown after WhatsApp‘s developers refused to turn over data that may aid investigation in a drug case. But the people running the app have a pretty good reason for not doing so: They don’t have that data.

The information is encrypted “end-to-end,” meaning it’s scrambled for the entirety of its trip between participants in a conversation instead of stopping through, say, a Google data center where law enforcement officials can tap into it. And that means that not even the people who devised the code know how to crack it, and the only practical way to read a conversation in there is by looking at someone’s screen.

But Judge Montalvao wasn’t impressed, and he imposed the shutdown yesterday. Today, however, another official overturned that request on an appeal from the company.

This isn’t the first time Brazil has dropped the hammer on WhatsApp. It suffered another blocking in December that only lasted 12 of the original 48 imposed hours.

The company has been successful in getting these punishments overturned because over 100 million Brazilians use the app, so it’s easy to argue that the rulings are overly harsh on too many people. And it has no intention of letting this fight go.

“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,” co-founder Jan Koum said in a Facebook post yesterday. “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. While we are working to get WhatsApp back up and running as soon as possible, we have no intention of compromising the security of our billion users around the world.”

The down time was pretty good for WhatsApp’s competitors in Brazil. Other messaging services like Imo, Telegram, and Viber saw giant boost in downloads while the more popular platform was down.

Brazil WhatsApp ban download numbers
I mean, a spike like that could come from anywhere. Image: Sensor Tower