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Why breaking WhatsApp encryption could have chilling effect on its users


Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp is in a court dock in India over the issue of traceability of messages. It has been facing a petition filed a year ago by Antony Clement Rubin and Janani Krishnamurthy in the Madras High Court.

The petition sought a special order against WhatsApp to declare the linking of Aadhaar or any authorised identity proof as mandatory for the purpose of authentication while obtaining a user account.

They argued, in their petition, that this will help in tracing miscreants or originators of fake messages and videos.

And in the ongoing case, that is scheduled for next hearing on August 21, there is fear that it might weaken WhatsApp users privacy protection. The last hearing on July 24 also saw the presence of social media giants including Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

In the last hearing, while expanding the scope of the PILs to add issues such as curbing cybercrime, and intermediary liability, the division bench asked V Kamakoti, a professor at IIT Madras who is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board, to file a report on how to enable traceability of message on the social media platform.

In June, Kamakoti had proposed that the Facebook-owned firm could include the phone number of the originator of a message at the time of forwarding. This would not require violation of WhatsApp users privacy. 

In this regard, WhatsApp legal team reportedly from its California-based headquarters had met Kamakoti. Though, no concrete decision was arrived at even after the meeting.

Over the years, the Indian government has emphasised on personal traceability issue and rising violence due to the spread of misinformation on the platform. 

Ten days ago, India’s IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad insisted on traceability saying “traceability shall be their jobs”. 

However, WhatsApp, which describes itself as space for private conversation, has maintained that it would not break encryption endangering the privacy of its users.

If every message that a user sent was kept with a user’s phone number then it would not be a platform for private communication, WhatsApp had said in a statement.  It further reasoned that end-to-end encryption promotes citizens’ fundamental rights of speech and expression without fear of surveillance. 

If it were not for privacy protection by the messaging platform, then many citizens and professionals may face the risk of retaliation and could be publicly exposed.

Privacy experts also think that the linking of Aadhaar to social media platforms is not a logical idea. It would lead to more power of social media over its users, and put many users including children and women at risk, they said.

Adding Aadhaar to this cocktail for the purpose of verification of identity would arguably create further harm, said Apar Gupta, IFF’s executive director, which is acting as an intervener in the ongoing case. 

Meanwhile, WhatsApp has insisted that it has been taking steps to curb abuse of the platform.

In May, WhatsApp added new protections to prevent people from adding others back into groups which they had left. The messaging app also launched a new setting that enables administrators to decide who gets to send messages within individual groups. 

In addition, the messaging platform has also been testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender.

WhatsApp, as per its 27-page response submitted in this regard quoted by Buzzfeed, believes that to trace the information originator is disproportionate to the aim of preventing and detecting crimes, as it would result in users migration and defeat the purpose of the platform.

Users privacy are important, so are traceability of originators spreading misinformation. While both the ends seem to stand on two equally opposite extremes, a balancing act is what might just do the trick.  

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