WhatsApp resists Indian mass surveillance demands

The Indian government is increasingly unhappy about its inability to intercept private communications.

Yesterday we reported that India has taken to raiding the offices of social media companies reluctant to enforce its censorship requests. Now we learn WhatsApp has been forced to take the Indian government to court over new rules requiring it to break its privacy protections.

Reuters has anonymous sources that told it the lawsuit had been filed in Delhi. It is contesting part of a new set of rules that requires social media companies to identify the ‘first originator of information’ to authorities. Leaving aside the chilling prospects of what the government would do with such information, such a backdoor would totally corrupt the end-to-end encryption built into such services.

Among its security and privacy FAQ’s WhatApp has a post titled What is traceability and why does WhatsApp oppose it? Traceability is effectively what the Indian government is asking for and WhatApp argues implementing it would undermine security for everyone. The post also explores the appalling human rights implications of giving a government such power.

Back in the good old days, while governments couldn’t necessarily control all sources of public information, they could at least identify them. If the traditional media made a contentious claim they could contact the editor or owner and have a word. The capacity for individuals, as opposed to institutions, to spread information widely was very limited and expensive.

Social media has blown that model out of the water and, while that isn’t a problem for countries that make no pretence at freedom of speech, such as China, it creates a novel challenge for the leaders of those that do. Indian Prime Minister Modi seems to be growing increasingly authoritarian in his desire to control the flows of public information, so legal actions such as this could set a major precedent, one way or the other.

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