WhatsApp Sues The Indian Government Over New Laws That Would Force It To Break Encryption

from the backdoors dept

For many years now, we’ve reported on efforts by the Indian government to demand that WhatsApp break its encryption to give the government access. Much of this comes from the fact that the Indian government wants to pin the blame for certain violence and disinformation on WhatsApp, rather than on those actually responsible. WhatsApp has, in the past, pushed back on individual demands to break its encryption.

However, things have stepped up a notch. The Indian government recently put in place new regulations that are, to put it mildly, quite troubling. India has framed the laws — like so many other laws like this around the globe — as being about stopping “abuse.” But, of course, the government gets to decide what is abuse.

The Indian government says the rules are designed to prevent ?abuse and misuse? of social media. ?The new rules instead seek to empower the users of social media by requiring these platforms to put in place a robust public grievance redressal mechanism,? a representative of India?s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a March 17 letter to TIME. ?It brings digital media outlets at par with print and electronic media with the underlying principle of self-regulation to ensure compliance to existing laws of India.?

And one thing that the Indian government believes is abuse… is encryption (remember, again, those earlier stories of the government blaming WhatsApp for violence). Exactly what the rules mean for encryption has been a bit… unclear. The rules do require that encrypted services keep certain information about who the “first originator” of a message is and to provide that to the government on demand. The Indian government insists this is not about breaking encryption. It claims they only need certain metadata and only in extreme circumstances. The government also claims that WhatsApp did not object to this proposal when it was first put forth and there was an open consultation period.

WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) claims that’s completely bogus, because in order to find the “first originator” of a message you have to track everything:

?Traceability? is intended to do the opposite by requiring private messaging services like WhatsApp to keep track of who-said-what and who-shared-what for billions of messages sent every day. Traceability requires messaging services to store information that can be used to ascertain the content of people?s messages, thereby breaking the very guarantees that end-to-end encryption provides. In order to trace even one message, services would have to trace every message.

That?s because there is no way to predict which message a government would want to investigate in the future. In doing so, a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance. To comply, messaging services would have to keep giant databases of every message you send, or add a permanent identity stamp — like a fingerprint — to private messages with friends, family, colleagues, doctors, and businesses. Companies would be collecting more information about their users at a time when people want companies to have less information about them.

And now, WhatsApp is suing the Indian government, claiming that the law violates India’s privacy rights.

Of course, this is also against the backdrop of even bigger conflicts between social media platforms and the government of Narendra Modi, including threatening to jail Twitter employees for not taking down criticism of Modi’s policies, and then raiding Twitter’s local offices for daring to fact check a tweet by a government spokesperson.

Tragically, these attacks on social media moderation and encryption are becoming a toolkit of angry regulators around the globe, as they seem perpetually put out by the fact that the public actually has a voice. Whatever you might think of Facebook, this is a scenario where you should be rooting for WhatsApp to win this case to protect basic privacy rights.

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Companies: facebook, whatsapp

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Comments on “WhatsApp Sues The Indian Government Over New Laws That Would Force It To Break Encryption”

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15 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Strangely I doubt they'd be okay with that...

‘This isn’t about encryption it’s about protecting against abuse’ is about as sensible and believable as me saying ‘It’s not about privacy it’s about preventing crimes’ as I push to have cameras installed in every government office and bedroom of government officials that I pinky promise will only be accessed for very serious issues and will be super-duper secure.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Indian government is extremely right wing they shutdown
the Internet in kashmir for months,
they want to clamp down on protestor human rights groups
Anyone that criticizes the government
They do not want anyone to be able to communicate in private
So they, ll make excuses why all apps need to track messages
We have seen this in russia and Hong Kong laws against company’s or the use of apps that might be used to organize protests or opposition political groups
Bit by bit India is moving towards a country governed by extremists who have no regard for privacy or free speech

Pixelation says:

It’s a little ironic that Whatsapp, an app designed for privacy, was purchased by Facebook and turned into another data sucking app and now they are upset about it losing another level of privacy. I think their complaint is all show and they will be happy to break the encryption to gather more data, knowing most people will continue to use it.

Khym Chanur (profile) says:

Traceability requires messaging services to store information that can be used to ascertain the content of people’s messages, thereby breaking the very guarantees that end-to-end encryption provides.


To comply, messaging services would have to keep giant databases of every message you send, …

How exactly does that enable one to ascertain the contents of the messages?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sorry, but that’s your inner ignorant chauvinist speaking. (please learn to suppress it, read Through the Looking Glass to see the easiest way.)

I’m no Indian, don’t even play one on TV, but Google world news frequently has articles that mention the high court criticizing government actions. No doubt they have their own errors and occasionally heinous errors–like disagreeing with me–but you could actually know what those errors were without lots more reviews of their decisions than most Americans ever made. (When I was 20 the supreme court disagreed with me quite often: it’s amazing how much they’ve learned in 40 years! But then, I have a much better grasp at how they work than I did then. I have a better grasp of the U.S. Constitution now.

And on the single case I KNOW I understood much better than any of the justices ever could have learned (the Oracle-Google copyright fight) they got the right answer, but they did not come to that answer through the theoretically ideal solution. Reading the decision, I got the impression that maybe–just maybe–one justice might have had a faint glimmer of the real computer-science issue, but not enough to express it in words: enough, though, to see some of the practical effects.

HOWEVER, after some time and thought, I realized that their approach would be (from a legal perspective) easier for mathematical illiterates (probably 90% of the general population, and a higher percentage of lawyers, and certainly 100% of supreme court judges) to apply, AND more broadly applicable across many technological fields than the theoretical approach which any comp sci graduate would have taken. And, which matters to judges if not-at-all to computer scientists, their approach was based on judicial precedents: they did not make new case law, or change case law, simply clarified the effect of existing case law on this subject.

All of which I would not have known if I hadn’t been following the case, and the supreme court, for years. Score 1 for ignorant supreme court justices, 0 for comp-sci graduate me.

There was one U.S. justice, appeals or supreme court IIRC, who made a habit of reading all Supreme Court rulings. His interviewer assumed he meant all 50 states. Yeah, those, also Canada and all provinces, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain…. That was unique, even for a jurist.)

Next time, walk a mile in their moccasins, or at least follow their tracks in soft-soled sandals, before breaking their picture windows, eh? Save the brickbats for persons (not groups of people), and only the ones you know well. Peace will drop on you like gentle spring rains, and friends will spring up out of parched ground.

Best wishes!

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Google world news frequently has articles that mention the high court criticizing government actions. No doubt they have their own errors and occasionally heinous errors–like disagreeing with me–but you could actually know what those errors were without lots more reviews of their decisions than most Americans ever made"

India’s supreme courts do get things straight now and then. But that India has serious problems even pretending to be a democracy these days and that no one expects indian courts to come to the right conclusion without a bribe or political pressure being involved isn’t chauvinist. Not when the loudest cries of foul are heard from the Indians themselves.

You may want to google for an exasperated column in The Times Of India written by a certain Sanjeev Sabhlok. Corruption and political opportunism are at levels in India they haven’t been at in centuries, if ever. Expecting only crap to come out of an Indian court is lamentably a reasonable default assumption, no matter that every now and then their supreme court makes headlines by actually coming to the proper conclusion.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

This part raised my eyebrows:

"The more free (ie less socialist) a society, the lower its corruption levels."

He states that socialism is the opposite of freedom as though it’s a universally understood truth. He seems to understand corruption in India as largely a function of the degree of socialism that has been introduced, and doesn’t mention at all European democratic socialism, where corruption is much less prevalent. Maybe he has a different definition of "socialism" than I do.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"Maybe he has a different definition of "socialism" than I do."

He must have. India is so capitalistic it’s rumored politicians there have a menu on their desk with legislation price tags for visitors to see. You can buy anything there. Money talks, everything else keeps silent or gets the truncheon massage.

But India keeps beating it’s chest about socialism and democracy, neither of which they actually apply. And just as with China the alt-right and ultra-libertarians are taking the words of rogue states and shady nations over dictionary definitions when they decide what "socialism" means.

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