WhatsApp blocked then unblocked by Brazilian courts

News by Max Metzger

In the third such scenario in the last eight months a Brazilian judge has ordered WhatsApp to be blocked in Brazil, before a higher circuit judge overturned that block.

WhatsApp was blocked and quickly unblocked by Brazilian courts in a dispute over the immensely popular app's privacy.

Judge Daniela Barbosa issued the order to ban access to the encrypted messaging app for “failing to provide information that will be critical to the success of an investigation”.

The block was later lifted by Supreme court judge Ricardo Lewandowski who said that the ban was disproportionate and violated “the fundamental precept of freedom of expression and communication”.

A WhatsApp spokesperson told SCMagazineUK.com: “We're pleased that people can access WhatsApp again in Brazil. The Supreme Court swiftly rejected today's block, finding that it was disproportionate and violated people's fundamental freedom of expression. In his decision, the chief justice stressed how people from across Brazil, including members of the judiciary, rely on WhatsApp to communicate with others every day, and that they bear the greatest burden when a service is blocked.”

He added, “we hope that this puts an end to blocks that have punished millions of Brazilians and that people can continue using services like WhatsApp to stay in touch with those who matter to them.”

WhatsApp, which is used by 100 million Brazilians, couldn't do much to give the court what they wanted anyway.  Famously, WhatsApp adopted end-to-end encryption earlier this year, joining similar services like Periscope in Apple's iMessage. The move was met with great applause from the privacy community as end-to-end provides encryption on both sides of the transmission process. In essence, this means that not even WhatsApp can look at the private messages of its customers.

Such misapprehensions seem widely shared by security-minded governments. It was only last week that Earl Howe, a minister for defence and head of the Conservatives in the House of Lords, said that the government must retain the right to access encrypted private messages.

Lord Strasburger, A Liberal Democrat peer responded that this essentially means “that no one may develop end-to-end encryption. One feature of end-to-end encryption is that the provider cannot break it; encryption is private between the users at both ends. He seems to be implying that providers can use only encryption which can be broken and therefore cannot be end-to-end”.

Functionally blocking WhatsApp is relatively trivial” Christopher Weatherhead, a technologist at Privacy International told SC,  “as it uses a client-server infrastructure to send and receive messages. By removing access to those servers (either through null-routing or poisoning services like DNS) the client will be unable to communicate with the servers, blocking the ability to send and receive messages.”

However, Weatherhead added, “other services exist which users would be able to easily switch over to should the suspension be lifted (this being the third suspension of WhatApp's services in Brazil within the last year), and it essentially becomes a game of whack-a-mole for the Brazilian authorities.”

Though the ban lasted for less than a day, this is the third time Brazilian authorities have imposed such a ban on the app in the last eight months. In February a similar block was ordered before being similarly overturned only a few hours later. The same happened in December 2015 before, once again, being overturned a short while later.  

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