scorecardIndian government has found a way to trace WhatsApp messages without breaking encryption
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Indian government has found a way to trace WhatsApp messages without breaking encryption

Indian government has found a way to trace WhatsApp messages without breaking encryption
Tech2 min read

  • The Indian government is asking WhatsApp to digitally fingerprint messages shared on the messaging platform.
  • This will allow the government to trace the origin of a particular message without having access to the content of the message itself.
  • But it’s not the easiest measure to implement and would require WhatsApp to restructure a lot of their infrastructure.
The Indian government might finally have a way around WhatsApp’s issue of not violating end-to-end encryption — with fingerprints.

Not actual fingerprints, of course, but something just as unique.

The government asked the Facebook-owned messaging platform to implement an identifier. It will allow the government and WhatsApp to pinpoint who sent which message, without having to read its contents.

WhatsApp told IANS, "We have nothing new to add to what we have previously said on this."

Encryption versus privacy

It’s not a new request. The debate over the encryption has been an ongoing battle between the Indian government and WhatsApp. This started after a viral video circulated on the messaging platform leading to a series of lynchings in the country last year.

The government has been pressurising the Facebook-owned messaging service to find a way to trace messages. They say it is key to addressing the burgeoning problem of fake news and misinformation spreading via the app.

End-to-end encryption, that is currently used by WhatsApp to keep communication private, has continually told the Indian government that the feature doesn’t allow for traceability.

The government, on the other hand, has explained that the metadata provided — name, display picture and the number of participants in a chat group — is not enough to catch perpetrators of fake news.

They even passed a law

Draft amendments to the Information Technology Act that were released in December 2018 outlines that all internet platforms, including WhatsApp, have to put measures in place to ensure traceability.

In other words, any service that runs digitally needs to have a feature in place that keeps track of the origin of messages.

WhatsApp, on its end, has been running awareness campaigns, limiting bulk messaging and running fake news hotlines to do its part.

An official told the Times of India that the government doesn’t want access to every single message, but only wants the option to send a limited number of requests.

Easier said than done

Implementing digital fingerprint might not violate encryption but it would require WhatsApp to overhaul the system it has in place right now, to cater to the government’s demands.

Australia too has legislation in place that allows it to bypass encryption though global tech companies have argued that such laws undermine the principles of privacy and safety. Even in Singapore, there’s an anti-fake news law where the government can surveil all online platforms — even private chat groups like WhatsApp.

In India, the concerns are similar. And, digital fingerprinting will give the government the power of surveillance.

See also:
What India needs from WhatsApp might not be so easily attainable

WhatsApp’s appointment of a grievance officer for India may only be a 'cosmetic move'

Here's what WhatsApp India head will take on as it sets out to establish its first full country team