BENGALURU: India has asked WhatsApp to digitally fingerprint every message sent on its platform without breaking the encryption, according to two senior government officials, in a move aimed at ensuring traceability of all content shared on the Facebook-owned messaging app.
WhatsApp should be able to identify where a message originated and how many people have read and forwarded it without having to read the message, the officials said. The government has been insistent in its demand for traceability of WhatsApp messages after misinformation and rumours around child kidnappings on the platform led to a spate of lynchings across India in 2018.
“Fingerprinting WhatsApp messages will help find the originator of the message. That is all we want,” one of the officials told ET.
“We don’t want to read messages. But when we see a problematic message, WhatsApp should be able to help us trace the sender,” the official added. “They have to find a way; it is technically possible.”
WhatsApp, one of the most popular messaging applications in India, has maintained that its end-to-end encryption does not allow for traceability. Law enforcement officials seeking to identify the origin of messages that cause public unrest or spread sexual abuse videos have long complained that the metadata (name, display image and number of people on chat groups) provided by WhatsApp is not sufficient to apprehend perpetrators.
Draft amendments to intermediary guidelines of the Information Technology Act released in December 2018 require all internet platforms to ensure traceability of the origin of all content shared through them.
“It is not acceptable that no one can trace any message. Somebody should be able to trace some messages sometimes. We have reached the limit of anonymity on the internet and that has to go,” said another government official.
WhatsApp declined to comment on the development.
The company had said in December that it regularly engages with the Indian government to discuss its commitment to maintaining a private and safe platform for people to communicate with one another.
India is the largest market for WhatsApp with 350-400 million people using the messaging application. The company is running a pilot for its payments business based on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) but is yet to receive government approval for a full-fledged such business.
Clarifying that the government will send traceability requests only in a limited number of cases, one of the officials said: “We will try to limit requests. There will be minimum touchpoints so there aren’t thousands of people sending traceability requests to WhatsApp.”
“It is about confidence-building,” the second official added.
WhatsApp currently does not store data on messages. However, if it accedes to India’s demand, it will need to redesign its entire architecture, said industry experts.
Experts said such a move by the American company could result in a backlash from privacy activists around the world who are worried that traceability will gag free speech on the internet, as governments could use the power to snoop on citizens.
“This suggestion will theoretically require WhatsApp to have knowledge of each and every message sent on the platform and store it by affixing a unique fingerprint.
This may seem simple, but it is not so easy to do,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.
“Traceability will make it easier for government surveillance, which is already unaccountable without any checks and balances,” he said.
In December, Australia brought in a law that enables the police to bypass encryption, despite criticism from technology companies that it could undermine public safety and privacy. In Singapore, the antifake news law gives authorities sweeping powers to police online platforms and even private chat groups.
Indian officials said the government is also mulling a rule to ensure technology companies post their grievance officers in the country in keeping with the intermediary guidelines on legal compliance and accountability.
WhatsApp appointed Komal Lahiri as grievance officer for India last year, but she is based in the US.
Final amendments to the intermediary guidelines are expected to be published soon and do not require parliamentary approval.
The amendments, aimed at curbing misinformation, fake news and hate speech, attracted public debate on content control, censorship and the requirement of local incorporation.