Whatsapp has sued the Indian government over the traceability clause in the new IT Rules 2021, saying that it “would break end-to-end encryption” and “undermine” user privacy.
The lawsuit filed by the Facebook-owned messaging service requests the Delhi High Court to consider the violation of privacy rights caused by one of the new IT rules that require social media companies to trace messages to ascertain the origin of a piece of information, Reuters reported on Wednesday. A Whatsapp spokesperson confirmed the news to Candid.Technology.
Whatsapp implemented end-to-end encryption in 2016, which is designed to protect user privacy and only allows the sender and receiver to read the messages. However, the new traceability clause would break that protection as Whatsapp will need to collect and store billions of messages sent each day — who-said-what and who-shared-what — and hand them over to law enforcement agencies.
“Requiring messaging apps to trace chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy,” a Whatsapp spokesperson told Candid.Technology.
The traceability clause in the Indian government’s IT Rules 2021 infringes upon the citizen’s fundamental right to privacy, which the Supreme Court of India upheld in Justice KS Puttaswamy’s case in 2017.
Can traceability work?
Finding the origin or source of a message on Whatsapp isn’t enough because a lot of information shared there originates elsewhere online. In such a scenario, traceability can also be used to frame someone for things they did not say.
Until now, law enforcement or a government usually requests companies to provide a known individual’s account information, but with traceability, they could provide a piece of information and ask who sent it first.
Such a law will also inadvertently lead to companies having to collect more user data in a day and age when users and privacy activists have rallied against data collection and don’t want that to happen.
“We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users. In the meantime, we will also continue to engage with the Government of India on practical solutions aimed at keeping people safe, including responding to valid legal requests for the information available to us,” Whatsapp spokesperson added.
Traceability violates human rights
Sharing something on a messaging platform can’t be enough to implicate someone to be the originator of that piece of information. However, traceability will do just that. Immaterial of whether the person created the content or not, wanted to share it to verify its accuracy or shared it out of concern, companies will be forced to share the names of these users with the authorities.
According to Whatsapp’s FAQ about traceability, “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. The threat that anything someone writes can be traced back to them takes away people’s privacy and would have a chilling effect on what people say even in private settings, violating universally recognized principles of free expression and human rights.”