RIO DE JANEIRO — For months, authorities in Brazil have sought access to digital data from WhatsApp to aid in criminal investigations. WhatsApp has repeatedly resisted the requests.
On Tuesday, the same clash erupted again, for the third time in less than a year. A Brazilian judge in a state criminal court in Duque de Caxias, in Rio de Janeiro, ordered a nationwide shutdown of WhatsApp after the popular messaging service, which is owned by Facebook, did not turn over user data requested by authorities as part of a criminal investigation. A few hours later, Brazil’s Supreme Court overturned the order.
Despite the brevity of the episode, the case is part of a broader debate worldwide about when law enforcement officials and governments should have access to the digital data kept by tech companies. Many of the companies, like Apple and Microsoft, have said they are unwilling to turn over such data to authorities because doing so would infringe on the privacy rights of their customers. But authorities have argued that they need the data for security reasons.
In Brazil, WhatsApp faced two previous shutdowns — one last December, and another in May — for not turning over digital information. Both of those bans were also quickly overturned on appeal by higher court judges. In March, a Facebook executive was briefly taken into custody for refusing to comply with similar orders to turn over information from WhatsApp.
In the court ruling on Tuesday that ordered WhatsApp to be shut down, Judge Daniela Barbosa Assumpção de Souza said in a court statement that WhatsApp “cannot be offered to more than 100 million Brazilians without complying with the laws of the country, while failing to comply with judicial orders and obstructing criminal investigations.”
“Especially when that activity leads to large profits, it is not credible that the company’s representatives cannot appear before the court in order to comply with judicial decisions,” the judge said.
Several previous requests had been made to Facebook for data, according to the court statement. The company is being fined 50,000 reais per day, or about $15,387, until it complies. Judge Barbosa also requested the company be investigated for obstruction of justice.
WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption of its communications, which makes it difficult to give third parties access to messages.
“As we’ve said in the past, we cannot share information we don’t have access to,” WhatsApp said in a statement.
Jan Koum, WhatsApp’s chief executive, added in a Facebook post before the court order was overturned that “millions of people are cut off from friends, loved ones, customers and colleagues today, simply because we are being asked for information we don’t have.”
Access Now, a digital rights group, called the initial court ruling disproportionate.
Peter Micek, global policy and legal counsel for Access Now, said in a statement, “Encryption keeps us safe, and companies need encouragement, not penalties, for taking steps like WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption that protects our data.”
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