The Global Network Initiative is deeply troubled by the news this past week that a Facebook regional executive was arrested and detained in Brazil in response to a dispute over law enforcement demands for access to user data on the WhatsApp service.
While GNI welcomes the subsequent release of Diego Dzodanar, GNI remains concerned that local staff working in many countries may be increasingly targeted for arrest or intimidation in cases where they are involved in the provision of services — like WhatsApp — which offer end-to-end encryption and do not store user data. WhatsApp is a company owned by Facebook.
“Company staff being arrested for not providing data they cannot access has disturbing implications for human rights and Internet freedom,” said GNI Board Chair Mark Stephens CBE.
This arrest follows the temporary shutdown via court order of WhatsApp in December last year. This move cut off millions of Brazilians from communicating with their family and friends, and from accessing vital information.
GNI calls on the Brazilian authorities to uphold international human rights standards on privacy and free expression and ensure that requests for user data be made in ways consistent with the thresholds of legality, necessity, and proportionality, as set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights.
“Disproportionate and overreaching measures — such as shutdowns and the arrest of local or other company staff — should not be used by government authorities as leverage to obtain customer data. These tactics undermine the privacy and free speech rights of technology users around the world,” said GNI Executive Director Judith Lichtenberg.
GNI acknowledges the legitimate security and law enforcement obligations of governments, but this responsibility must be subject to international human rights protections, including the privacy rights of users. We encourage governments not to pursue policies and practices that undermine online security standards or compromise the digital security of the general population in order to pursue law enforcement objectives.
As well as protecting the personal and financial information of all users encryption is particularly important for persecuted minorities, journalists, lawyers and other civil society actors to protect their safety and anonymity — and that of their sources.
GNI made a submission in support of encryption to the May 2015 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Expression. The report concluded that encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age, and as such, deserve strong protection.