Can Big Tech Save Us From the Power of Government?

WhatsApp (and owner Facebook) sues to protect users from malicious surveillance from officials.


WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging phone app owned by Facebook, is suing Israeli tech companies for selling information on hidden vulnerabilities that allowed malicious actors to infiltrate and access private communications.

The targets of the lawsuit, NSO Group and Q Cyber Technologies, are both private companies. But this lawsuit is very much about government behavior. The companies' clients include government agencies in places like Mexico, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. According to the suit, the hacking mechanisms sold by NSO and Q Cyber allowed for the targeting of "attorneys, journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, diplomats, and other senior foreign government officials."

In May, Facebook announced that it had tracked down the source of the vulnerability and shut it down. According to the lawsuit, an NSO employee actually complained to WhatsApp about the fact that they stopped the exploit.

The Washington Post notes that the NSO surveillance tool named "Pegasus" referenced in the WhatsApp lawsuit had previously been used to secretly snoop on Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was murdered by people allegedly connected to Saudi Arabia's government.

On Tuesday, WhatsApp head Will Cathcart contributed an opinion piece to The Washington Post that should give any U.S. government official pause when trying to demand that tech companies provide ways to bypass encryption:

This should serve as a wake-up call for technology companies, governments and all Internet users. Tools that enable surveillance into our private lives are being abused, and the proliferation of this technology into the hands of irresponsible companies and governments puts us all at risk. …

Democracies depend on strong independent journalism and civil society, and intentionally weakening security puts these institutions at risk. And we all want to protect our personal information and private conversations. That's why we will continue to oppose calls from governments to weaken end-to-end encryption.

The lawsuit is using the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and California's own Computer Data Access and Fraud Act to target the two Israeli companies in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit charges the company with violating the terms of use for WhatsApp and arranging for unauthorized access to the private data of the app's users. WhatsApp is asking the court for a permanent injunction stopping NSO Group from accessing WhatsApp and Facebook (and even using the two platforms at all), and compensatory and punitive damages.

So, while we have any number of government officials in the United States in both political parties and at the Department of Justice insisting that they should be calling the shots on how tech companies handle data privacy, it's also abundantly clear that it is very dangerous to give government officials that sort of control. Attorney General William Barr's attempt to stop Facebook from implementing better data privacy and encryption on WhatsApp puts people in legitimate personal danger from oppression in some countries. Cathcart's resistance is praiseworthy.

Read the lawsuit for yourself here.

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  1. “Can Big Tech Save Us From the Power of Government?”

    When a coercive monopoly government like Reason supports has its monopoly on the legal use of force, the answer is NO

  2. “Can Big Tech Save Us From the Power of Government?”
    It never has, why should it start now?

    1. Au contraire! Big tech in the form of the printing press unraveled quite a few governments Big tech in the form of faxes and photocopiers unraveled the big bad Warsaw Pact.

      There are plenty of examples.

      1. Right?
        I mean, just look at Mercedes in Germany!

  3. “Can Big Tech Save Us From the Power of Government?”

    Guess where the government gets all its tech from to spy on all us peasants?

  4. Does Comrade Stalin know?

  5. You act like Big Tech and the government are different entities.

    Facebook and Twitter are the new public square. They should be prevented from banning people and censoring speech.

    1. No they aren’t. Once you stop using them you realize they’re more like a bar that’s filled with regulars.

  6. government is big tech is government no?

  7. Big tech is big government.

  8. I’m a little surprised at the comments. Big tech may be the *only* thing that can save us from the power of government. Whether it will, well….

  9. How libertarian can you get, suing someone (using the power of government) for selling information?

    Why not improve your product so it has fewer weaknesses to exploit?

  10. “Under pressure from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to monetize WhatsApp, [Brian Acton] pushed back as Facebook questioned the encryption he’d helped build and laid the groundwork to show targeted ads and facilitate commercial messaging. Acton also walked away from Facebook a year before his final tranche of stock grants vested. “It was like, okay, well, you want to do these things I don’t want to do,” Acton says. “It’s better if I get out of your way. And I did.” It was perhaps the most expensive moral stand in history. Acton took a screenshot of the stock price on his way out the door—the decision cost him $850 million.”

    —-Forbes, September 26, 2018

    “WhatsApp Cofounder Brian Acton Gives The Inside Story On #DeleteFacebook And Why He Left $850 Million Behind”

    Having Zuckerberg become the face of encryption and privacy is probably the worst thing that could happen for encryption and privacy right now. Congress just finished crushing Facebook’s plans for a cyrptocurrency–because Zuckerberg and Facebook were involved. Not satisfied with crushing any latent legal support for cryptocurrency, I guess Zuckerberg now intends to destroy any support for strong encryption with his horrible visage, too?

    The racist, mass shooting enthusiasts at 8chan might have a better name than Zuckerberg right about now. I hope Zuckerberg doesn’t come out in favor of capitalism, the Second Amendment, yoga pants, or anything else I like! Jesus, seeing Zuckerberg champion encryption and the right to privacy is like Harvey Weinstein write your company’s sexual harassment polices. GFY Zuckerberg. The last thing encryption and the right to privacy need is your fucking help.

    P.S. When Acton left Facebook, he immediately sank $50 million into SIgnal, which remains the far superior option for privacy. Who’s watching the watchers, indeed. Anyone who uses WhatsApp should be asking themselves the same question–what do I know about WhatsApp that Brian Acton doesn’t know?

  11. “Can Big Tech Save Us From the Power of Government?”
    Yes, it can. It takes “big tech” to tell the government to stuff it when congress asks “big tech” to answer idiotic questions.
    I may take “big tech” to learn from Trump to say ‘up your’s, pal’, and leave it at that.
    Draining the swamp is not easy, but Zuckerberg has the opportunity.

  12. Wonderful information, thanks for sharing such a great article.

    Advanced Technology

  13. yes, they have an impact on the government and its decision.
    lets say facebook or amazon or Walmartone, they formulate policy according to bigges.

  14. As with the WhatsApp data was hacked and monitored by the isaralies was not Good. If I do the case study then I found big tech can save the power of government. Even with proper utilization of tech we can create a new and bright future for all but for App development companies such as AwebStar should create a secured app so that data can’t be hacked.

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