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Facebook sues Indian government to protect WhatsApp encryption

WhatsApp Encryption

Facebook has been at the center of a few privacy scandals this year, with the controversial WhatsApp privacy policy update being one of the most notorious. Facebook wants to collect more WhatsApp user data related to in-app commerce features and has had to defend the new terms of service for most of the year after millions of people downloaded rival chat apps in response to the changes. Since January, Facebook has been doing everything it can to ensure that users understand WhatsApp will not eliminate the end-to-end encryption that protects all of the messages and calls exchanged on the platform.

While Facebook is ready to bend privacy policies to meet its financial needs, it appears it’s also prepared to sue the government to protect user privacy. Facebook’s WhatsApp sued the Indian government over new privacy laws in the country that the social network claims would force it to break the same encryption feature that Facebook has been promoting all year.

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The Indian government wants more control over what happens on the internet in the country to stop the spread of misinformation. WhatsApp is the world’s largest instant messaging platform with more than 2 billion users worldwide, and India is the app’s largest market, with more than 500 million WhatsApp users. The Indian government wants Facebook to track every single message sent through WhatsApp to identify “the first originator of information” when authorities deem it necessary.

WhatsApp’s lawsuit asks the Delhi High Court to declare that the new IT rule violates privacy rights in India’s constitution, people familiar with the matter have told Reuters. WhatsApp argues that placing a tracer in messages would mean breaking the end-to-end encryption that so many people seek in a chat platform.

“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 told Reuters in a statement.

A government official claimed that WhatsApp could find a way to track the originators of disinformation and that India isn’t asking Facebook to break encryption.

“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a WhatsApp spokesman told The New York Times. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages, and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so.”

WhatsApp might be the most prominent tech company affected by the Indian government’s new rule, but the regulations would also apply to others. The Time explains that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has been working for years on forcing tech companies to police online content.

But critics say that the rules would allow the government to censor dissent. Last month, the government ordered Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to take down social media posts critical of Modi’s government and its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Officials said the posts should be removed because they could incite panic and hinder its response to the pandemic, The Times reports. Social networks complied with many requests, making some posts invisible, but only in India.

Indian police descended on Twitter’s offices in New Delhi this week, as the government sought to contest labels that Twitter added to tweets from senior members of the government.

Other tech firms, including Mozilla, and digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week that they supported WhatsApp’s fight against “traceability” in India.

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Chris Smith started writing about gadgets as a hobby, and before he knew it he was sharing his views on tech stuff with readers around the world. Whenever he's not writing about gadgets he miserably fails to stay away from them, although he desperately tries. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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