back to article Brazil gets a WTF WhatsApp moment

An extraordinary conglomeration of technology, politics, and law took place Wednesday night and Thursday morning when the WhatsApp service suddenly disappeared for millions of users in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Starting 9pm Wednesday local time, Brazil's four main telcos – Oi, Vivo, TIM, and Claro – complied with an …

  1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    What did the court orginally ask for?

    I wonder if there is a good reason that WhatsApp refused to comply with the court order. Were they asked to supply plain-text data that they simply had no access to? Or did they think the original request was unreasonable in any other way?

    The article covers none of this, and it seems odd that WhatsApp would simply refuse to consider a valid court order relating to an intentionally-accepted crime in any country unless there was something odd about it.

    This appears to be very different to Uber who make a point of not complying with existing rules on licensing and insurance for taxies by arguing they somehow are not offering rides-for-hire, when everyone can see that is the whole point of paying for a ride.

    1. Leeroy

      Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

      As far as I know the chats are encrypted and what's app can't can't access the contents of the messages.

      Is this still the case after being bought by Facebook ?

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        @Leeroy

        That was my thought - they simply can't provide what was requested and the court can't get their head around that concept. But without an explanation of the original case and court order its just speculation.

      2. ckm5

        Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

        This x50. WhatsApp can't deliver something it doesn't have. My guess is that courts in Brazil (like law enforcement & politicians in the US) don't understand this.

        cf. http://www.wired.com/2014/11/whatsapp-encrypted-messaging/

        1. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

          Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

          It seems to me that in this case encryption is irrelevant.

          WhatsApp encrypt messages only to make it difficult to eavesdrop in real time. If they do not keep the keys they presumably do not keep the messages past delivery since it would be a pointless waste of storage. Thus, a court request/order for past messages would be answered with a simple "we don't keep messages on our servers after they are delivered". The answer would be the same with or without encryption.

          I also assume that if one changes one's phone there is no way to retrieve past WhatsApp messages from the servers, since there is no way to resurrect the keys. Can anyone confirm or deny? If there is such a way then I'll assume that the company could have complied with the court order...

          I wonder if WhatsApp keep the metadata (who messaged whom when) and if metadata were requested.

          1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

            Re: @T. F. M. Reader

            I use WhatsApp as it offers a group messaging facility that is handy to organise meetings of friends, etc, and once after wiping data to clear space on my SD card it asked if I wanted to download the previous messages, so obviously it keeps at least some history.

            That would make sense, as the recipient's phone could be off or out of range for a few days so you would still want a message to get through. However, if anything like SMS I doubt they bother to store more than a week or two's worth of history (as it can also have photos, audio and video clips, so could be large).

            As for WhatsApp having flawed encryption, that is a different matter. The fact that it can be broken or intercepted with moderate effort by a skilled hackler (GCHQ/NSA sort of thing) is not the same as being able to offer plain text on demand.

          2. BillG
            Mushroom

            Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

            WhatsApp encrypt messages only to make it difficult to eavesdrop in real time. If they do not keep the keys they presumably do not keep the messages past delivery since it would be a pointless waste of storage. Thus, a court request/order for past messages would be answered with a simple "we don't keep messages on our servers after they are delivered".

            You need to understand how governments think when they want something. They think and act like spoiled children, which includes thinking that everyone lies (like they do). Anything they do not understand or do not like hearing becomes sounds like blah blah noise, so like a spoiled child that does not understand, they think if they throw a large enough temper tantrum they will get what they want.

            So "We will not provide you with the messages because we don't keep messages on our servers after they are delivered"

            becomes

            "We will not provide you with the messages blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah"

            To the government, "unable to comply" = "refusal to comply". So the government throws a temper tantrum and blocks WhatsApp. When their behavior makes things worse (voter revolt), they try another tactic.

            it's important to realize that the government still believes that although WhatsApp denies having access to messaging data, they do not believe WhatsApp because they would keep and deny the data themselves.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

          I think WhatsApp can actually, just look this up on google. Their encryption contains several flaws. Example: http://www.myce.com/news/users-shouldnt-trust-on-whatsapps-end-to-end-encryption-75939/

        3. LDS Silver badge

          Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

          Just as long as Facebook doesn't store your keys anywhere.... do you trust FB about that? I would not. After all it bought WhatsApp to gather data from users. It's not a charity born to offer free services to users without getting anything back... it does collect users phonebooks, where are the keys stored?

          Maybe it's because of that FB refused the court order? It would have revelead actually FB can access messages? NSA can keep data accesses secret - a public trial could not...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

      Refusal to comply is not the same as giving a reason for not being able to. It is irrelevant what was requested Whatsapp should have cooperated as fully as possible intead of putting up a wall..

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: @Chris W

        "Refusal to comply is not the same as giving a reason for not being able to"

        But what is it? The El Reg article reads is if they just point-blank ignored the Brazilian courts (which is always possible I guess). But so far I have not seen any translation of what the court requested nor what the official response of WhatsApp was to this request.

        Can someone find out the real point of disagreement?

      2. Tom Samplonius

        Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

        "Whatsapp should have cooperated as fully as possible intead of putting up a wall"

        Why? When US courts tried to force MS to turn over data stored on servers in Ireland, the US was widely criticized for trying to extend US law to the EU. This is no different. Brazil is trying to enforce Brazilian law on companies in the US. It goes both ways.

        And "cooperate as fully as possible" is definitely not the right approach, especially to an unenforceable order from another jurisdiction.

        1. HarshKarma

          Re: What did the court orginally ask for?

          Don't really see how this is the same. MS in Ireland is a separate legal entity and does not do any business in the US; it does conform to laws in Ireland where it actually conducts business. If MS Ireland did business in the US, then I would expect it would conform to the laws there as well. WhatsApp in the US does business in Brazil and as such should be expected to confirm to the local laws. This is no different from any company doing business internationally, just because the company is registered in a different country, doesn't mean they can ignore all the laws of the country they're doing business in.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another interesting point is the ease in which a service used by millions can be shutdown.

    One of the many vaunted advantages to Internet services is that they should be resilient.

    I would argue that that such a service should be difficult if not impossible for a single agent to close otherwise, it demonstrates their vulnerability to less official interference.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: Internet services is that they should be resilient

      Not if your sole route and connection (i.e. ISP / mobile operator) disconnects that service by blocking it.

      You (an El Reg reader) can of course use VPN, etc, to bypass regional blocks, unless they are told to block VPNs for that reason, then you are in to the whack-a-mole game of blocking proxies, protocols, etc. Joe Public will just look at the phone/PC and go "WTF?"

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      I would argue that that such a service should be difficult if not impossible for a single agent to close otherwise, it demonstrates their vulnerability to less official interference.

      Who would you argue it to? It's a key part of national sovereignty to be able close services as deemed fit by the courts. WhatsApp is not a utility like water or electricity.

      With the internet this is technically extremely difficult without full control of all the cables and radios but it is still well within the remit of the courts to try to do so. China and other countries do it all the time and America is moving that way.

      And people should wake up to some of their dependencies. I don't care whether WhatsApp isn't available because of a court injunction or because the company goes bankrupt. I should have a plan B. As Kieren notes, there's a lesson in there about the "network effects" that are trumpeted by the unicorns and their backers.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If BT, Virgin, EE, Vodaphone & O2 blocked access, that would be pretty much most of the UK shutdown for most non-techie people.

  3. Ketlan

    Limited?

    '...in an effort to exert pressure on the company, which has a limited presence in Brazil'

    '...estimated 100 million Brazilian users of WhatsApp'

    I wouldn't call 100 million users a 'limited presence' in ANY country.

    1. DavCrav

      Re: Limited?

      "'...in an effort to exert pressure on the company, which has a limited presence in Brazil'

      '...estimated 100 million Brazilian users of WhatsApp'

      I wouldn't call 100 million users a 'limited presence' in ANY country."

      Their users have a strong presence, 90% as the article says. The company itself has few staff and assets there.

      1. Rafael 1

        Re: Limited?

        ...which is used by over 90 per cent of Brazilians...

        [[citation needed]] -- there are 200 million Brazilians there.

        1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

          Re: Limited?

          And a million tons of coffee, apparently.

    2. David Roberts

      Re: Limited?

      The company (as opposed to the user base) has a limited presence.

      Presumably no server farm to seize and sell, no major corporate office to raid, no juicy bank account to seize to pay fines, no corporate officers to arrest etc. So little leverage on the company to force compliance with the local laws.

      I assume all the infrastructure is elsewhereand the only local point of contact is the ISP. Hence the point of attack.

    3. Adam Azarchs

      Re: Limited?

      Users, yes. But not employees or revenue, which are the traditional targets of government punishments.

    4. MattPi

      Re: Limited?

      I wouldn't call 100 million users a 'limited presence' in ANY country."

      They probably mean limited corporate presence, such as offices and employees. I'd be surprised if there were any employees in Brazil at all, unless there's a south American support operation there or something.

  4. nilfs2
    Big Brother

    What if?

    What if a USA secret court asks for information from WhatsApp/Facebook? Don't think they would get the same answer.

    1. ckm5

      Re: What if?

      Doesn't matter who asks or how you ask (court order, at the end of a machine gun, rubber hose, etc), the chats are encrypted in such a way that even WhatsApp doesn't have access to them....

      cf: http://www.wired.com/2014/11/whatsapp-encrypted-messaging/

      1. Primus Secundus Tertius

        Re: What if?

        Perhaps WhatsApp should have just handed over the encrypted data, saying that is all they had. At least then they would be showing some degree of compliance with the law.

        Next step perhaps is arrest warrants for all senior WhatsApp personnel. That will show them!

    2. Rafael 1

      Re: What if?

      FWIW, the judge asked for the information in July 23rd (he asked for the contents of some user's messages, this user was suspect of some crimes -- he was arrested in 2013!). The judge asked again in August 7th, with a fine in case they didn't comply. Now we had this blackout and outcry.

      The main issue behind this is Brazilian telecoms are starting to complain about Whatsapp since it is not regulated by the National Telecom Agency, while the operators are, which (in their opinion) is unfair.

      1. Rafael 1

        Re: What if?

        (too late to edit my own post)

        They *DO* make a dime from WhatsApp, actually at least two -- on a prepaid plan, they charge 75 cents of a Brazilian real (20 cents) for each day for data (with additional restrictions, limit on daily data usage) -- this allows plain SMS and WhatsApp. When you use all your KB for a day you can "renew" for a similar amount of money.

        One of the telcos even have a WhatsApp-friendly plan! What they want is a way to charge MORE to people that want to use WhatsApp.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "...sad to see Brazil isolate itself from the rest of the world"

    Somewhat exaggerated, I think. I'm sure Brazilians use more than a minor social networking app to communicate with the rest of the world.

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: "...sad to see Brazil isolate itself from the rest of the world"

      Say that to the expats.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "...sad to see Brazil isolate itself from the rest of the world"

        Yeah, I guess expats would have been particularly miffed.

        I'm not playing down the pain it caused to people (my only family would have been upset too), I just thought the quote was a bit over the top.

      2. Rafael 1

        Re: "...sad to see Brazil isolate itself from the rest of the world"

        (temporary) Expat here. I was able to do two Skype video conferences and send/receive e-mail during that horrible, horrible Whatsapp blackout. SWMBO works in a Brazilian IT office, though, and told me that some people's hands were shaking from the withdrawal symptoms.

    2. Daniel B.

      Re: "...sad to see Brazil isolate itself from the rest of the world"

      You are severely underestimating the power of Whatsapp in the Latin American countries. Over here, it is pretty much the one true IM application across all smartphones. I'd also expect a similar outcry if the (already unpopular) Mexican government were to block Whatsapp over here.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: "...sad to see Brazil isolate itself from the rest of the world"

        Indeed. Daughter (in Rio) is increasingly annoyed that I won't install it here; SWMBO had it as her first application when she got her current smartphone.

        Contact via phone or text is of course possible, but significantly more expensive than whatsapp.

  6. Stretch

    My concern is...

    ...that if they can't get to the evidence, sooner or later they will dispense with the need for it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: My concern is...

      Presumably in the UK this is less of a worry since the courts could lock you up if you refused to provide the relevant keys for encrypted messages.

      1. RichardB

        Re: My concern is...

        So in this instance who would be responsible for the keys? The guys sending and receiving the messages?

      2. Velv
        Holmes

        Re: My concern is...

        "Presumably in the UK this is less of a worry since the courts could lock you up if you refused to provide the relevant keys for encrypted messages."

        Which raises an interesting question.

        Do you know the key encrypting your messages? By using the app you encrypted the messages, so you must be able to provide the key to decrypt them. And are you going to be convicted for failing to be able to provide the key that you have no access to?

  7. phil dude
    Linux

    get signal...

    I have whatsapp because it works with UK numbers while I am in the US.

    But google "openwhisper systems" and get the Signal app for android/iphone.

    It provides secure text and voice calls (over wifi if possible) and is FOSS.

    And you can set it up so *other* android apps cannot read from it, by needing a login to open the app.

    P.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    WhatsApp nobbled?

    Just Donald Trump field testing his Security Heightened Intertubes Termination (SHIT) blocking system [TM] with Bill.

  9. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    "Used by over 90 percent of Brazilians"?

    So Brazil must be the only country in the world where over 90 percent of the population have smartphones. Interesting.

    1. Daniel B.

      Maybe not 90% but over here in Mexico City, even the low income proles have some kind of smartphone these days. Cheap Android handsets go for 1000 MXN, which is somewhere around a month's worth of minimum wage.

      Wouldn't be surprised if this were also the case in Brazil.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just another example...

    ...of a public affliction to dangerous electronic toys. Maybe these people should try e-mail and wean themselves off the APPs?

  11. zeitsieben

    Tidbit on brazilian reality

    This article covered nicely the underlying reason of the ban that happened yesterday. Our marco civil law was supposed to leverage the playing field and guarantee data isonomy to anything - telcos would only be responsible to get data from point A to point B.

    However, Amos Genish (Vivo's CEO) goes constantly on media to say how whatsapp is a pirate service (really, just google the combination of "his name", "vivo" "whatsapp" and "pirata"), as it provides text and voice services without being regulated like the ISP's or telcos utilizing their infrastructure, phone number AND not paying any kind of fees. The other telcos are kinda meh about it and go as far as "breaking data isonomy" by making whatever you use with the application free - that means in most of then you have a normal data plan and unlimited access to whatsapp. Our Bahia's state MP (Public Ministery) went as far as "investigating" the Tim telco about it's unlimited access deal, with ground as to why "you're prioritizing some kind of data over another". Surprisingly, they said they give customers some advantages and better deals... and it worked! Since then, Claro and Oi also followed suit, integrating facebook, twitter and whatsapp usage in their consumer plans. By the way, Vivo still refuses to do that kind of deal and keep going to the media against those apps.

    It's all fine and dandy, but we all know telcos would LOVE to tap on that lost SMS/voice call revenue, and go as far as to lobby our politicians to harden the instance on those apps, claiming "they can't expand or provide better service because we are not profitting as much as back in the day" yadda-yadda.. which is weird, considering their profits go up year after year (http://www.teleco.com.br/opcelular.asp). Our regulation agency (Anatel) does a fairly good job at keeping things in a sane level and are not easing politics bs into the life of the every-day-and-unaware-consumer, which is a good thing.

    But how all of this came to be? Simple - price gouging. When I got my 1st cellphone in 2003, the minute cost of a call was ~R$1,80 to the same telco and R$2,70+ to others. SMS were around R$0,70 each and kept decreasing a little bit and being incorporated by whichever plan you choose (in the end, you still paid like R$20 for your SMS's for a "normal" plan). A unlimited plan goes above R$500 here, while the minimum wage is R$788, and you can't even rent a livable place for less than R$800 on most big cities. Then whatsapp, viber, telegram and etc all came along, making people stop using those expensive services and utilizing our broadband infrastructure to get our communications needs filled with the help of those apps, hence why all the hate.

    The landscape is finally changing for the better on that regard - Tim and Oi waived fees and made any call to any telco a fixed and sane price (at Tim I pay R$0,75 for the 1st call I make and every call is "free" for the rest of the day), proving that it's still possible to profit from those services without gouging your customers. Claro and Vivo are still on the old business model, but profits are still going up, so do w/e is working out for you, I guess.

    1. Old Handle

      Re: Tidbit on brazilian reality

      What I don't get why they charge such high prices for SMS and calls and then practically give data service away. Surely it doesn't take a genius to figure out what would happen. In the US it's the other way around. You get an generous amount of calls and SMS free with basic service and pay a premium for a high or unlimited* data allowance.

      *not really unlimited.

  12. Jove Bronze badge

    Bring me the head ...

    Put a bounty on the CEO's head (Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) of any such business. It may encourage a improvement in behaviour, and make great headlines along the way.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'If the judge in this case had given WhatsApp customers sufficient notice that the service would go down for two days, and if she had ordered the telcos to provide download links to other messaging applications in the lead-up to that downtime, well then we might have seen a very different outcome.'

    Don't bet on it. Facebook mainly bought Whatsapp (and gratuitously overpaid for it) because it recognised that messaging has a network effect even stronger than its own product.

    Brazilians don't just talk to brazilians, and no-one has the slightest interest in downloading a new app and then waiting to see which of their contacts follow them there.

    Outside China (where Wechat dominate the world's largest internal market) Whatsapp is the only game in town and only a ham-handed attempt to monetise it can kill it off.

    Any government with the remotest accountability to its population will see the same backlash if they try to stop it. Giving two days notice or promoting alternatives won't work because a) a notice that Whatsapp is going to go down for two days will just irritate people, not make them jump ship to a new app without their ecosystem in place and, most importantly, b) it's laughable to imagine that any government wants to protect the sensibilities of its population. Any alternative they recommend will be an inferior product from a vested interest they're looking to protect.

    The funny thing is that the crude attempt to monetise which would be the greatest threat to Whatsapp's lock-in is precisely what Facebook probably need to do if they ever want any sensible return on their investment.

  14. John Sanders
    Holmes

    Politicians...

    Lately I'm more and more convinced that our beloved elites can not grasp how complex and intertwined today's society is, socially, industrially, culturally etc. Specially politicians.

    They are so ignorant and arrogant they think they can hammer rule whatever doesn't conform to their view of how things should be, and the first victim is individual rights.

    "I'm removing your privacy, I'm doing this for your own good" Our elites think, and oh they wonder, why people get so upset?

    They can not stop and think for a second, they have the urge of continuously spat legislation via totalitarian tic.

    There are legal interception laws, use them, make companies and institutions complain with these policies via court of law and always via court of law to remove abuse, getting the data of your communications should be as difficult as any other kind of legal warrant if not more.

    I do not expect our elites to understand any of this, like good social-democatic-marxist they think themselves above us poor commoners.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Whatsapp, Facebook and Google

    They are the public subsidiaries of the NSA.

    Collecting and storing all your personal search history, contact details, relationships, photos, location, messages...

    We are not waiting for the Big Brother Surveillance society, people are actually asking for it by using these services.

    Remember - if something is free, you are the product being sold

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Whatsapp, Facebook and Google

      WhatsApp is not free, after the first year it costs a small amount each year to use it.

      1. David Nash

        Re: Whatsapp, Facebook and Google

        "WhatsApp is not free"

        They say that, yes, but I have never had to pay (I haven't changed my phone number either).

  16. cream wobbly

    "The case involves drug trafficking and the prosecution said the person in question made extensive use of WhatsApp while committing his crimes."

    They possibly also made extensive use of roads, cash, air, toilets, and food. So ban them as well.

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