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Why The Heck Brazil Blocked WhatsApp

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The popular messaging service WhatsApp has been blocked by a judge in Brazil and will be offline for 72 hours.

The Facebook-owned service recently introduced end-to-end encryption for users, and the move has led it into legal trouble. A judge from the small Brazilian state of Sergipe has called on telecoms providers to block WhatsApp in a row over accessing the encrypted data, writes Kate Conger for Tech Crunch.

Brazilian judge bans WhatsApp… again

Judge Marcel Montalvao wants WhatsApp to give him chat records related to a drugs bust. However the company says that it does not have access to the unencrypted data and therefore cannot hand the information over in court.

According to local newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, the ban was set to begin at 2PM local time. Phone companies are set to be fined if they do not fulfil the court order.

WhatsApp CEO and co-founder Jan Koum said via Facebook that it is impossible for the company to hand over the information. “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,” he wrote.

CEO says encryption policy will not be changed

Koum went on to say that the messaging service would not be changing its policy on encryption.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

Montalvao has had previous run-ins with the messaging service, which has over 100 million users in Brazil. The judge previously issued an arrest warrant for Diego Dzodan, Facebook’s vice president for Latin America, in March.

However Facebook maintains that Dzodan has no control over WhatsApp data as the messaging service remains largely independent of its parent company.

Rival Telegram trending on Twitter in Brazil

Brazilian authorities also banned WhatsApp for an initial 48 hours last December, although it was lifted after 12 hours.

“After cooperating to the full extent of our ability with the local courts, we are disappointed a judge in Sergipe decided yet again to order the block of WhatsApp in Brazil,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told TechCrunch. “This decision punishes more than 100 million Brazilians who rely on our service to communicate, run their businesses, and more, in order to force us to turn over information we repeatedly said we don’t have.”

Telegram, a rival messaging service, started trending on Twitter in Brazil after the ban was enforced. Telegram offers some encryption but can hand over information if it receives a court order. iMessage, which offers end-to-end encryption, also started to trend.

“Considering the political crisis Brazil has been struggling with, shutting down the main medium of communication is not trivial at all,” Mariana Cunha e Melo, an attorney based in Brazil, told TechCrunch. “In Brazil, the poor and the rich, they all communicate via WhatsApp. People have several groups they use to communicate to their friends, business partners, etc. It is not easy to simply migrate everything to Telegram from time to time.”

A popular VPN service called Hotspot Shield said that it saw installations spike in Brazil following the ban. VPNs allow users to fool programs into thinking they are in a different country.

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