Indian govt prods WhatsApp again on traceability of messages

Indian govt prods WhatsApp again on traceability of messages
Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Reuters
18 Jun, 2019

The Indian government has reportedly asked WhatsApp to create a digital fingerprint of every message sent on the platform without interfering with encryption. The move is aimed at ensuring traceability of all content shared on WhatsApp, according to The Economic Times which cited two government officials it did not name.

The government wants Facebook-owned WhatsApp to identify the origin of messages and how many people have read and forwarded it without having to go through the contents, the report added.

The government has for long been insistent on traceability after misinformation and rumours circulated via WhatsApp had triggered a spate of lynchings across India last year.

“We don’t want to read the messages but when we see a problematic message we should be able to go to WhatsApp to help us trace the sender. They have to find a way; it is technically possible,” a government official was quoted as saying.

In an emailed response to TechCircle, WhatsApp said it maintained its stance on the issue and had nothing new to add. In previous statements, WhatsApp had said that “attributing messages on WhatsApp would undermine the end-to-end encryption and its private nature, leading to possibilities of being misused.”

Draft amendments to intermediary guidelines of the Information Technology Act released in December 2018 require all internet platforms to ensure traceability of the origin of all content shared through them.

However, WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption ensures that only the sender and receiver of messages can read what is sent. Even WhatsApp cannot access this information, according to its website.

Law enforcement officials have long complained that the metadata (name, display image and number of people on chat groups) provided by WhatsApp is not sufficient to apprehend perpetrators.

WhatsApp executives including director and general counsel Brian Henessy had met officials at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in December 2018 and ahead of the general elections in May in connection with the issue of traceability.

With 350-400 million users, India is the largest market for WhatsApp. The company has been running pilots of its payments service based on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) since last year, but is yet to receive government approval owing to a number of concerns including privacy.

WhatsApp had last November appointed its first country head outside of its California headquarters by selecting Ezetap co-founder Abhijit Bose to lead its Indian operations.

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