WhatsApp said that traceability would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermine people’s right to privacy.

WhatsApp splash screen open on a phone person holding it up
Atom Privacy Wednesday, May 26, 2021 - 09:36

WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Facebook, has challenged a clause in the new IT rules in India in court which mandates them to reveal the originator of a message. With this move, WhatsApp becomes the first tech company to challenge the rules that come into force from May 26. The rules require companies to disclose the identity of “originator” of a message, and WhatsApp has called this unconstitutional and a violation of human rights.

WhatsApp has said that this would break end-to-end encryption, and fundamentally undermine people’s right to privacy. A report by The Indian Express added that the plea in the Delhi High Court also asks for preventing criminal liability to its employees for non-compliance, along with declaring the demand for traceability as unconstitutional.

“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,” WhatsApp said in its statement.

“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,” it added. 

The Union Government's new IT rules that mandated that companies have to disclose who was the original composer or sender of a message, if asked by a competent authority or by a court, had made many experts opine that this would become a serious breach of privacy.

In a new FAQ page titled ‘What is traceability and why does WhatsApp oppose it?’ WhatsApp detailed why it would break end-to-end encryption and why it is opposing the same.

“Reasonable and proportionate regulations for an increasingly digital world are important, but eroding privacy for everyone, violating human rights, and putting innocent people at risk is not the solution. WhatsApp is committed to doing all we can to protect the privacy of people’s personal messages, which is why we join others in opposing traceability,” it said. 

In its post, WhatsApp said that traceability is intended to do the opposite “by requiring private messaging services like WhatsApp to keep track of who-said-what and who-shared-what for billions of messages sent every day”.

“Traceability requires messaging services to store information that can be used to ascertain the content of people’s messages, thereby breaking the very guarantees that end-to-end encryption provides. In order to trace even one message, services would have to trace every message,” it said.

It stated there is no way to predict which message a government would want to investigate in the future. “In doing so, a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance. To comply, messaging services would have to keep giant databases of every message you send, or add a permanent identity stamp -- like a fingerprint -- to private messages with friends, family, colleagues, doctors, and businesses. Companies would be collecting more information about their users at a time when people want companies to have less information about them,” it stated.

It further added that traceability violates human rights and forces private companies to turn over names of people who shared something even if they did not create it, shared it out of concern, or sent it to check its accuracy.  It added that innocent people could get caught in the crosshairs, even if they did not mean any harm. 

“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,” it said, adding that tracing messages would be ineffective and highly susceptible to abuse.

“Moreover, traceability inverts the way law enforcement typically investigates crimes. In a typical law enforcement request, a government requests technology companies provide account information about a known individual’s account. With traceability, a government would provide a technology company a piece of content and ask who sent it first,” it further added.

Read: How govt’s new IT Rules to 'track originator of messages' can affect your privacy

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