A few weeks ago the global messaging app, WhatsApp, was banned in Brazil for 48 hours. It caused communication issues for a staggering 100 million people (48% of Brazil’s population) and even spread to other South American countries, including Chile and Venezuela. The question is, why did this happen?
The Brazilian legal system has been known to act frivolously and hyperactively when dealing with digital-related issues. For example, in 2007 YouTube was temporarily blocked when explicit content of a Brazilian supermodel was posted and not taken down. WhatsApp has had similar problems in Brazil. Earlier this year a court demanded the application be suspended for 24 hours, when the company refused to hand over data in a criminal investigation.
Banning certain services because of isolated incidents, have proven to be ineffective. For instance, this most recent Brazilian ban proved to be very good news for the competition, with Telegram (a rival messaging app) reporting a grand total of 1.5 million downloads in 24 hours. So in the end it becomes a game of whack-a-mole for the Brazilian authorities – as you hit one down another will pop up.
Contrary to what you may read on your Facebook timeline, Mr Cameron and Co are unable to secretly look at your WhatsApp messages. This is because it is an encrypted messaging service, which means it doesn’t disclose personal data to third party organisations, such as Governments.
WhatsApp’s non-disclosure policy has also caused run-ins with the Governments and legal institutions of other countries. If you type into Google ‘WhatsApp ban’ the U.K, China and Dubai all list. This highlights that it’s not only Brazil’s establishment that feels threatened by the potential impact of encrypted messaging applications.
Tim Cook, the CEO of technology giant Apple supports his company’s stance of being ‘pro-encryption’. He claims that providing Governments with the opportunity to investigate certain users “would weaken the protections built into Apple products and endanger all our customers. A key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys. The bad guys would find it too.”
Putting this argument to one side, I believe that if we look at it from the perspective of Governments, we can begin to understand their motives and concerns.
Let’s say for instance, we were children again and there’s a group of your friends secretively discussing something which may or may not affect you. It’s human nature to want to know what’s being said, either for personal satisfaction or the safety and comfort of everyone. This example shows that when you take it down to a rudimentary level it starts to make more sense. But what happens when we look at the issue of snooping on a national or international level?
With the growing concern of global terrorism, much of which is hidden in the murky waters of the dark web and encrypted messaging services, it’s clear to see why Governments want to take action. Additionally, the Paris attacks in November exposed the extent to which terrorist organisations use encrypted communication services to organise their lethal activities.
I understand the concerns of governments around the world, however intervention is sure to open up a whole can of worms. For instance, consider the massive commercial implications that could result from legislation banning encrypted messaging. The public’s confidence in online security would likely take a hit, negatively impacting the way we work, buy and play.
Through this blog, I have looked at some of the key facts and both sides of the argument. This is a major area of controversy as the issue is so binary, with the outcome potentially affecting billions of people. I’m interested in seeing how this debate plays out in the coming months and whether the UK Government goes ahead with its new bill. But until then, if you need me, WhatsApp me.