A drug trafficking investigation in Brazil has exploded in a row over internet privacy and civil liberties after a judge ordered the temporary freezing of popular messaging application WhatsApp, presaging future conflicts over communication and encryption tools in organized crime investigations.
A judge in the Northeast state of Sergipe ordered Brazilian telecom companies to suspend WhatsApp service nationwide after the messaging company refused to turn over data related to an ongoing drug trafficking case.
Consequently, many Brazilians reported being unable to access WhatsApp on May 2. The following day, however, the app began functioning normally after an appellate court overturned the judge's ruling, reported news website UOL.
The court case, which was initiated in 2013, involves messages exchanged between alleged drug dealers via WhatsApp, reported BBC Brazil. The judge hearing the case, Marcel Maia Montalvão, has previously requested WhatsApp hand over data believed to be relevant to the investigation. After the company did not comply, Montalvão ordered the arrest of a local executive at WhatsApp's parent company Facebook in March. The executive was released after 24 hours, according to the BBC.
In response to the judge's actions, the messaging company said that it "cannot provide information we do not have" to Brazil authorities, according to The New York Times. Messages sent via WhatsApp are not stored on the company's servers, while more recently, WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption to all its messaging services.
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Montalvão's move was widely criticized by media freedom watchdogs, local journalists and social media users. However, as the BBC reported, within Sergipe state Montalvão is seen as an effective judge whose rulings are tough on crime, a stance that some value in an area with some of Brazil's highest homicide rates.
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Nevertheless, observers are arguably also justified in expressing concern over internet freedom issues in Brazil. This was not the first time that a judge ordered a nationwide shutdown of WhatsApp after the company failed to supply data deemed important for a criminal investigation, and the impact of such decisions can extend far beyond the company itself.
Brazil is not the only country in the region where authorities have clashed with technology companies when conducting investigations. The United States recently saw a dramatic stand-off between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after the company refused to unlock an iPhone in a terrorism investigation. Investigators eventually found a way to do so without Apple's compliance.
As communication tools and encryption technology become ever more sophisticated and more important for both legal and ilegal activities, such conflicts between privacy and the need to combat organized crime networks are only likely to increase.