Encryption Battles Continue

May 15, 2024

Privacy protections are great—unless you are law-enforcement attempting to trace a bad actor. India has tried to make it easier to enforce its laws by forcing messaging apps to track each message back to its source. That is challenging for a platform with encryption baked in, as Rest of World reports in, “WhatsApp Gives India an Ultimatum on Encryption.” Writer Russell Brandom tells us:

“IT rules passed by India in 2021 require services like WhatsApp to maintain ‘traceability’ for all messages, allowing authorities to follow forwarded messages to the ‘first originator’ of the text. In a Delhi High Court proceeding last Thursday, WhatsApp said it would be forced to leave the country if the court required traceability, as doing so would mean breaking end-to-end encryption. It’s a common stance for encrypted chat services generally, and WhatsApp has made this threat before — most notably in a protracted legal fight in Brazil that resulted in intermittent bans. But as the Indian government expands its powers over online speech, the threat of a full-scale ban is closer than it’s been in years.”

And that could be a problem for a lot of people. We also learn:

“WhatsApp is used by more than half a billion people in India — not just as a chat app, but as a doctor’s officea campaigning tool, and the backbone of countless small businesses and service jobs. There’s no clear competitor to fill its shoes, so if the app is shut down in India, much of the digital infrastructure of the nation would simply disappear. Being forced out of the country would be bad for WhatsApp, but it would be disastrous for everyday Indians.”

Yes, that sounds bad. For the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it gets worse: The civil liberties organization insists the regulation would violate privacy and free expression for all users, not just suspected criminals.

To be fair, WhatsApp has done a few things to limit harmful content. It has placed limits on message forwarding and has boosted its spam and disinformation reporting systems. Still, there is only so much it can do when enforcement relies on user reports. To do more would require violating the platform’s hallmark: its end-to-end encryption. Even if WhatsApp wins this round, Brandom notes, the issue is likely to come up again when and if the Bharatiya Janata Party does well in the current elections. 

Cynthia Murrell, May 15, 2024


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