Monday Judge Marcel Montalvão, of Brazil, ordered the temporary shutdown of WhatsApp within its borders. The ban was issued because the app failed to hand over information, related to a criminal investigation of a drug ring. While the shutdown will stop the drug ring members from communicating, Brazilians are angry and more than 100 million users in that country feel they are being punished.
WhatsApp Messenger is a messaging app that allows users to send text messages, documents, images, video and audio messages via the internet. For customers with a restricted text plan, this is quite handy, as there is no need to pay for sending out a text message. As of February 2016, WhatsApp had a user base of one billion, which made it the most popular messaging application in the world. Part of the reason for its popularity is the ability to run on iPhones, Android, Windows, or old school Nokia flip phones.
Yet one controversial aspect of the app itself is that messages sent are encrypted. So much so that not even employees of WhatsApp are able to read the data across the network. This means that if a court orders WhatsApp to allow access to the content of a message, they have no way to be able to comply.
The founders of WhatsApp says this protects their users. In a recent blog post the founders commented, “No one can see inside (a) message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us. End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private.”
FBI General Counsel James Baker says such security is dangerous. “If the public does nothing, encryption like that will continue to roll out,” he said. “It has public safety costs. Folks have to understand that, and figure out how they are going to deal with that. Do they want the public to bear those costs? Do they want the victims of terrorism to bear those costs?”
Such an argument of privacy vs safety played out in the comic book world in 2006, and serves as the source material for Captain America: Civil War. In the Marvel crossover event Civil War Tony Stark/Iron Man represents government regulation. After a supervillian uses his superpowers to blow up a school he helps to enforce the Superhero Registration Act; a legislative bill that requires the mandatory registration of any person based in the United States with superpowers. Someone with superpowers would be treated as a potential terrorist just because they have powers. On the day the act passed, Iron Man’s group went after Captain America’s group rather than hunt down supervillains.
Some would argue that this issue has been around for quite some time. In fact, a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin states, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” However, the original quote actually has nothing to do with government surveillance, but actually a tax dispute. As brilliant as Franklin was, he couldn’t have foreseen the technology or problems, we’d have today.
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