Detention of Facebook Executive in Brazil Stirs Debate Over Internet Privacy

Even though Brazil has released the Facebook executive it had detained, the incident has reminded global technology firms of the difficulty in balancing security and privacy.

Even though Brazil has released the Facebook executive it had detained, the incident has reminded global technology firms of the difficulty in balancing security and privacy.

It was not the first time the social media giant tasted the anger of Brazilian authorities. About three months ago, a judge in São Paulo ordered the shutdown of WhatsApp throughout the entire country for 48 hours after the company failed to hand over a WhatsApp message. 

Then, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, intervened and described the shutdown as “a sad day for Brazil.” Perhaps, Zuckerberg thought that things would return to normal for his company in Brazil. But soon, another court started asking for a similar kind of message.

According to reports in local media, the court asked Facebook to hand over messages between certain drug dealers it was investigating. This time, the court decided to call for the arrest of the company’s vice president for Latin America, Diego Dzodan.

It is clear that Facebook, which owns the text-messaging app, has been clashing with the officials in Brazil over privacy issues in a similar way to how Apple is battling with the U.S. authorities. Apple failed to comply with the U.S. Justice Department’s request to circumvent security measures to unlock an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino terrorists in California.

The important distinction, of course, is that the United States has not gone to the extent of shutting down iPhone service.

Amid the controversy, suspicion over internet companies and internet data is growing further in Brazil. But Anderson Baldin Figueiredo, one of the leading IT consultants in Brazil, says the debate and suspicion is good for his country. This might, he says, resolve the issue once and for all, prompting the government to update its legislation so it better aligns with the need of the day.

“The fact is that this event triggered intense debate on the issue of privacy vs. crimes — something like the episode Apple vs. FBI,” said Figueiredo. Facebook, which had thrown its support behind Apple in its battle over user privacy with the U.S. government, is now realizing that this is not just an American issue.

“From the point of view of the Brazilian law, the arrest was lawful since it fulfilled an order issued by a judge,” said Figueiredo.

WhatsApp said it doesn’t store its users’ messages after they’ve been delivered, so it is unlikely the service would be able to hand over messages to law enforcement. In other words, WhatsApp messages are encrypted, which means they exist on users’ phones but not on any Facebook- or WhatsApp-owned servers.

WhatsApp is popular in Brazil, where nearly 100 million people use its free text- and voice-messaging functions regularly. Moreover, poorer Brazilians depend on WhatsApp for their day-to-day communications. Texting in Brazil is about 55 times more expensive than in the U.S. That means shutting down WhatsApp on charges of not complying with security norms is not easy for the Brazilian government.

But companies and federal and local governments also rely on the service to send messages and share pictures and videos. So the arrest has angered the country’s technology community. “In my opinion, the process could have been conducted in a friendlier way, avoiding this unnecessary exposure of an executive who is not responsible for the company’s policies, process and procedures in working with data management,” says Figueiredo. “The executive says he has no data to share with the government.”

Brazilian authorities are no doubt concerned about the internet freedom. Their worry stems from the 2014 revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on President Dilma Rousseff, her close advisers, and Brazilian commercial interests, including the state-run oil company Petrobras that has since become the center of a corruption probe that is shaking domestic politics.

Ever since the spying was revealed by Edward Snowden, the Brazilian government is seriously looking for ways to create an internet network not connected with the United States. Addressing the United Nations Assembly in 2013, President Rousseff vowed that Brazil would redouble its efforts to adopt legislation, technologies and mechanisms to protect itself from the illegal interception of communications and data.

Sign up for our Nearshore Americas newsletter:

Rousseff also pledged to promote more home-grown internet services and make Brazil’s piece of the global internet less U.S.-dependent. Soon after, it unveiled a plan to build a $185 million undersea fiber-optic cable that would connect it to Portugal. And now with all the press and high-profile controversy, how Brazil enforces privacy will be closely watched by authorities across the world.

Tags