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Brazil arrests Facebook VP in latest tussle between privacy and security

Facebook's Latin America vice president was arrested in Sao Paulo Tuesday, after police say the company's subsidiary, WhatsApp, refused to comply with court orders. While part of a wider Brazilian context, it is also the latest in a global struggle.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Obama and Rousseff aim to show they've moved beyond tensions sparked by the revelation nearly two years ago that the U.S. was spying on Rousseff.

Police in Brazil arrested Facebook’s Latin America vice-president Tuesday, after what they characterized as repeated refusals on the part of WhatsApp to comply with court orders seeking assistance in a drug-trafficking investigation.

WhatsApp, now a subsidiary of Facebook, says it is unable to provide what the authorities are seeking – WhatsApp messages exchanged between suspected drug traffickers – insisting it has cooperated as much as possible.

While this represents yet another chapter in the increasingly global tussle between privacy and security, it should also be viewed in the context of the problems and changes roiling Brazilian society.

“This arrest is symbolic of an increased prominence of the judiciary and police as a result of the Petrobras scandal,” says Jason Marczak, Director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at The Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“Over the last year, you’ve seen some of Brazil’s top business leaders put in jail, including in preventive detention,” continues Mr. Marczak. “Police in Brazil feel increasingly empowered.”

This latest arrest, of Facebook’s Diego Dzodan, is also an example of “preventive detention,” whereby the police are seeking to prevent people fleeing the country in advance of formal proceedings – people who often have significant means at their disposal.

In a statement emailed to the Monitor, Facebook calls the arrest an “extreme and disproportionate measure”, and laments that its own executive has been arrested in connection with a case involving WhatsApp, “which operates separately from Facebook.”

For its part, in a statement also emailed to the Monitor, WhatsApp insists “[we] cannot provide information we do not have.”

“We cooperated to the full extent of our ability in this case and while we respect the important job of law enforcement, we strongly disagree with its decision.”

This case is the latest in a growing number worldwide where a balance is being sought between the protection of privacy and the need for authorities to access information in the name of security.

In the highest-profile of current battles, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey was in front of a congressional panel Tuesday to talk further about his organization’s demand for Apple’s assistance in unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the assailants in the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Across the pond, in the United Kingdom, the technology industry is fighting the Investigatory Powers Bill, which would “give police access to Internet communications and the right to hack into computers and phones”.

Even in Brazil, this is not the first time authorities have come into conflict with tech giants.

In December last year, a court imposed a 48-hour ban on WhatsApp, after it failed to comply with judicial rulings requiring it to share information in another case. And in 2012, a judge ordered the arrest of Google’s operations chief in the country after the company refused to take down a YouTube video.

“Brazilian local courts have had a long history of issuing such broad and disruptive injunctions in their attempts to force Internet intermediaries to comply with state investigations or orders,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation International Rights Director Katitza Rodriguez, in an email to the Monitor.

“This is one more in a trend, especially against a company, WhatsApp, that does not have boots on the ground, and against an executive of Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and is a separate legal entity.”

Yet it is also important to remember the wider picture in Brazil, whereby relations with the United States took a hammering with the revelations of spying leaked by Edward Snowden, with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff delivering a blistering speech to the United Nations in 2013 that condemned the US government's global surveillance activities. 

“Dilma’s reaction to the Snowden affair was probably the worst of any political leader in the world,” Marczak of the Atlantic Council tells the Monitor.

“Since then, Brazil has started looking at what it could do in terms of independence of the Internet from the United States. Brazil has a history of questioning how technology is being used in its country.” 

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