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It’s difficult to overstate the influence of WhatsApp in Brazil. The messaging app, which was essential for nearly half of all smartphone users in Brazil according to a June 2016 report by Mobile Time and Opinion Box, has seen its fair share of turmoil in the country, however: A Brazilian judge recently ordered a shutdown of the app for 72 hours as a result of WhatsApp’s refusal to cooperate with a subpoena in a criminal case. But WhatsApp claims that, given the encryption of their app, there would be no data to turn over. And with the rise of encryption apps and email services, this story reverberates around the globe.
Nova/sb and Ilumeo reported in January 2016 that 95% of internet users in Brazil used WhatsApp in 2015, 8 percentage points higher than the second-most used messaging app, Facebook (it’s worth noting that Facebook owns WhatsApp).
But again, it’s important not to think of this shutdown as a Brazilian problem: eMarketer also wrote about WhatsApp’s popularity recently in, for example, Argentina.
Nearly half (47%) of internet users surveyed by Carrier y Asociados in April 2016 said WhatsApp groups are their preferred social media platform; 70% said they used the platform in April 2016.
In fact, viewing the current developments as a purely Latin American problem would be to also miss the point: Smartphone and tablet users are on the rise across the planet, and with that rise in users will come a rise in social media users, as well as mobile messaging users. eMarketer estimates that 2.19 billion people around the world will use mobile phone messaging apps by 2019, up from 1.61 billion this year. Some of the largest audiences are in Asia-Pacific.
As encrypted apps and other forms of mobile encryption become more popular, and as governments attempt, like they have not only in Brazil but also elsewhere to gain access to locked or encrypted information, a story like this becomes not just a WhatsApp story, but an encryption story.
After all, about 1.6 exabytes of mobile data traffic worldwide each month this year will come from encrypted apps, surpassed only by video data. By next year, over 2.2 exabytes of encrypted mobile data will traffic around the world each month.
And not all of that data is harmless. Over the past year, terrorists from ISIS and other groups have been known to communicate via encrypted apps, which has put their inner workings, along with technologies like the one Apple has developed to encrypt iPhone passkeys, in the political spotlight.
WhatsApp provides a vision for the future of the wider world of encrypted apps, in that it is used widely, by disparate people, for disparate reasons, enjoys popularity in different regions of the world, and sits plainly at the intersection of privacy rights and government approaches to new technologies. Whether it will keep its current form or begin to comply with governments worldwide is yet to be seen.
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