Last week the Indian government banned 14 mobile apps, including Element, Crypviser, Enigma, Safeswiss, Mediafire, Briar, Nandbox, and Second Line, among others on charges that these apps were used by terrorists in Pakistan to communicate with the Over Ground Workers (OWG) in Kashmir.
The apps were banned under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act of 2000. This section confers the centre and state governments to issue content-blocking notifications to online intermediaries such as Internet Service Providers, telecom service providers, web hosting services, search engines, and online marketplace, among others if the content is deemed as a threat to India’s national security, sovereignty and public order. The apps did not have a representative in India, making it challenging to monitor activities on the platform.
Responding to the app ban, Element, an end-to-end encrypted messaging app, clarified that it never compromises end-to-end encryption or user privacy.
Element also said that it has never received any prior notice from the Indian authorities regarding the decision to ban the app. It is also said that Indian authorities have been in contact with Element in the past and they were given constructive responses within the same day.
The Element app is based on a decentralised and federated Matrix service and banning the app is akin to “blocking Google Chrome because it gives people access to the web, or Gmail because it gives people access to email”.
“Some governments see undermining encryption as the most effective way to combat the ills of terrorism or other illegal behaviour. That approach is completely flawed; it just removes ordinary people’s ability to communicate in private which leaves them vulnerable to all types of surveillance, crime and subjugation,” said Element.
This is not the first time that the Indian government has resorted to a blanket banning of apps for various reasons. In February, India banned several betting and loan apps with Chinese links. In September 2020, the Indian government banned Baidu, PUBG and 116 Chinese apps and in June 2020, 59 apps were banned citing security concerns.
Element is right in pointing out the undermining although undermining encryption can be an effective way to combat terrorism or other illegal activities, it is a flawed approach as it “removes ordinary people’s ability to communicate in private which leaves them vulnerable to all types of surveillance, crime and subjugation”.
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