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Brazil’s WhatsApp Ban Is a Harbinger of International Encryption Battles

Facebook’s popular messaging app was shut down by a judge in Brazil after improved encryption irked investigators.

In February, Facebook revealed that its messaging service WhatsApp had one billion users. On Monday it suddenly shed 100 million of them when a judge in Brazil shut the service down for 72 hours after the company’s use of encryption irked investigators in a narcotics case. WhatsApp has intentionally upgraded its encryption so that it will be incapable of reading users’ messages.

Facebook is fighting the ruling, something it did successfully in December when another case led to a 48-hour ban. But even if the social network wins, it and other tech companies will probably face more resistance to their use of encryption in Brazil and other countries outside the U.S.

Although Apple said one reason it recently resisted FBI demands that it help unlock an iPhone was to avoid setting a precedent with international repercussions, governments around the world appear willing to try to force tech companies to weaken or limit their encryption. Many countries appear even less receptive than the United States to claims that encryption should be protected.

A draft U.K. law includes provisions that appear to allow government demands for companies to weaken or break their encryption, for example. China passed an anti-terrorism law last year that requires technology companies to provide assistance to investigators, including decryption. And while a proposed U.S. Senate bill that would limit encryption looks dead in the water, it may well be followed by new bills with similar aims.

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