The Indian Government Wants to Break Messaging Encryption, WhatsApp’s Suing

Illustration for article titled The Indian Government Wants to Break Messaging Encryption, WhatsApp's Suing

Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba (Getty Images)

WhatsApp is taking Indias government to court over a new mandate that it claims will lead to mass surveillance of users in the companys biggest market.

Reuters was first to report on the suit filed in Dehlis high court, which WhatsApp confirmed to Gizmodo on Wednesday. The suit is WhatsApps attempt to push back against the Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code (or intermediary guidelines, for short); a spate of sweeping tech regulations that go into effect across the country today. Since Indias authorities first rolled the rules out back in February, theyve drawn skepticism from legal experts and tech policy advocates across the region that have criticized the law for being overly broad in its attempts to wrangle major platforms. As Reuters points out, theres already at least one other case against the new rules brewing in Dehlis high court for that same reason.

Specifically, WhatsApps suit focuses on a provision stating that all major messaging appsincluding encrypted platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegramneed to give Indian authorities the power to trace private messages. Until now, when WhatsApp is approached by authorities with requests for information, those authorities need to ask about a specific account that they can prove is using the platform for something criminal. In a nutshell, the new mandate would mean that these same authorities can approach WhatsApp with a specific piece of criminal content, and order the platform to cough up details about the account that was first caught sharing it.

As always, please dont take Facebooks word for this. Its a stupid approach for a slew of reasons. Experts have already pointed out, theres really no way for platforms to parse apart whether an account is actually creating this content themselves, or if theyre simply re-sharing something theyve found elsewhere. Under the new mandate, a WhatsApp user could have their account scrutinized by authorities if theyre trying to fact-check or raise alarms about a piece of problematic content.

WhatsApp pointed Gizmodo towards a company blog post calling out this clause directly. Traceability forces private companies to turn over the names of people who shared something even if they did not create it, shared it out of concern, or sent it to check its accuracy, the company wrote.

Through such an approach, innocent people could get caught up in investigations, or even go to jail, for sharing content that later becomes problematic in the eyes of a government, even if they did not mean any harm by sharing it in the first place.

Theres also the factas technologists have detailed in the pastthat its impossible to make an encrypted platform traceable without breaking that encryption, a move that will compromise the securityof WhatsApp users to potential hacks.

WhatsApps encryption has been a persistent thorn in the side of authorities in India, where the platforms been linked to the spread of persistentand harmfulmisinformation. Towards the end of 2017, rumors that circulated on the platform led to seven men being violently lynched, provoking WhatsApp to ultimately put strict limits on the way people could use the platform to forward messages. Evidently, though, this hasnt been enough for Indias law enforcement agencies, which have repeatedly tried to get the company to enable traceability over the years.

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