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Facebook Exec Sprung From Brazilian Jail

By John P. Mello Jr.
Mar 2, 2016 2:06 PM PT

A Brazilian judge on Wednesday ordered the release of Facebook Regional Vice President Diego Dzodan, one day after Brazilian police placed him under arrest for WhatsApp's failure to produce messages the government believed relevant to a drug ring investigation. Judge Ruy Pinheiro concluded the exec's detainment amounted to coercion, according to press reports.

Judge Marcel Maia ordered the arrest on Tuesday, after WhatsApp failed to comply with requests by police and the court to produce messages created in the app.

"We are disappointed that law enforcement took this extreme step," WhatsApp said in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld by spokesperson Matt Steinfeld.

"WhatsApp cannot provide information we do not have," the company maintained. "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."

Facebook Chagrined

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, expressed chagrin over the arrest.

"We're disappointed with the extreme and disproportionate measure of having a Facebook executive escorted to a police station in connection with a case involving WhatsApp, which operates separately from Facebook," the company said in a separate statement Steinfeld provided to TechNewsWorld.

"Facebook has always been and will be available to address any questions Brazilian authorities may have," it added.

This isn't the first time WhatsApp has been in hot water in Brazil where, according to The Guardian, it's been the most popular app download for the past two years, and is used by about half of the country's 200 million people. In December, the app was shut down for 48 hours for twice failing to comply with court orders for information.

It was brought back online after public outcry and intervention by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg considers Brazil a crucial market for Facebook, according to a New York Times report. He was part of a small group of Silicon Valley executives who met in July at Stanford University with the country's president, Dilma Rousseff.

No Chilling Effect

Although wrangling with domestic or foreign governments can be unsettling for companies, it's unlikely to deter anyone from using their wares.

"These cases aren't always very high profile, and they tend to blow over very quickly and people have short memories when it comes to this stuff," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.

"These things tend to have a fairly minimal effect on how much people change their behavior," he told TechNewsWorld.

Governments' strong-arm tactics have not had much impact on the way high-tech companies do business overseas," Dawson said.

"It hasn't happened enough for it to be an issue. On rare occasions like China some companies have pulled out," he noted.

"Google is not very active in China partly for that reason. Other companies like Facebook haven't been very active there either for the same reasons," Dawson continued.

"These companies don't participate in those markets where conditions are particularly egregious," he added, "but for the most part, they carry on business as usual."

Apple Trap

In one sense, WhatsApp and Facebook find themselves in a situation similar to Apple and its tussle with law enforcement over accessing data on iPhones, noted Jadzia Butler, a privacy, surveillance and security fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

"Much like the Apple case, they're in a situation where because they've created such a secure device, they cannot give law enforcement what they're asking for," she told TechNewsWorld.

"It's not even an issue of conflict of laws," Butler said. "It's an impossibility."

Conflicts between law enforcement and high-tech companies are going to increase in the future because of encryption, she added.

"Even if law enforcement has possession of the information it wants, they're not going to be able to look at it," Butler said, "so law enforcement is going to have to adapt all over the world to changing technology."

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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Orange: A big one could be costly and threaten public safety.
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