Facebook caught in privacy debate with arrest of executive in Brazil

Brazilian police want WhatsApp data linked to a drug trafficking case. It's another example of the tech industry's tussle with law enforcement over encryption.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
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WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is hugely popular in Brazil.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Apple isn't the only tech company sparring with law enforcement over users' privacy.

A Facebook executive was arrested by Brazilian federal police Tuesday for not turning over information from a WhatsApp account linked to a drug trafficking investigation.

Diego Dzodan, a vice president for the Menlo Park, California-based company, was taken into custody for "repeated non-compliance with court orders," according to a statement from police, translated from Portuguese. Brazilian authorities could hold him for a week or more, according to The New York Times.

Dzodan could be released Wednesday after about 24 hours in jail if, as expected, a judge overturns a lower-court decision, according to the Reuters news agency.

At stake is what the tech industry believes is its duty to safeguard the privacy of its users, while law enforcement officials say they need access to data as a matter of national security and crime-fighting. Apple is embroiled in a similar episode -- a high-profile battle in the United States against the FBI for data from an iPhone used by a terrorist in the San Bernardino, California, shootings in December that claimed the lives of 14 people.

Facebook is expected to file an amicus brief in support of Apple this week, along with Google, Twitter and Microsoft.

In WhatsApp's case, the company may not be able to help Brazilian authorities because it does not store users' messages, a situation exasperated by new encryption updates designed to protect communication between people. WhatsApp says it cannot provide information it does not have.

This isn't the only scuffle in Brazil for WhatsApp, which is used monthly by more than one billion people worldwide. In December, a judge ordered the shutdown of WhatsApp for the country for two days after not complying with a criminal investigation, but the ruling was overturned the next day.

Facebook, which bought WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion, condemned the Brazilian government's move.

"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," a spokesman said. "Facebook has always been and will be available to address any questions Brazilian authorities may have."

Update March 2 at 4:55 a.m. PT: Added that Dzodan is expected to be released Wednesday.