Ever since devices and apps offering full encryption became popular with consumers, governments around the world have attempted to pass laws forcing companies to break encryption or build backdoors into their products. That way, law enforcement agencies would be able to collect data, including the contents of encrypted phones and chat apps that might be relevant for investigations. Those initiatives remained unsuccessful, and devices and apps that offer end-to-end encryption continue to provide strong protection to users.
The Indian government has proposed a different tracking method that doesn’t involve breaking the end-to-end encrypted texts. Officials want Facebook to tag each separate WhatsApp message so that it can be traced back to the original sender in case a crime is committed.
Senior officials have informed Economic Times that the government wants WhatsApp to assign an alphanumeric hash to every message sent through the platform. The hash would travel with the message, giving it a unique identifier without breaking the strong encryption.
“The government is willing to work with WhatsApp to come up with a solution to enable traceability of message originators without breaking encryption,” unnamed officials have said.
The government wants to be able to trace the first sender of a message that might be flagged by a court of law or authorized government agency. It’s unclear what sort of messages would be flagged and how the flagging would occur if WhatsApp chats are encrypted. Also, it’s unclear how finding the original sender might help authorities, although there are scenarios where that could be helpful. This quote indicates the type of crime that officials might be targeting with the move:
‘You can’t run such a large platform and build no accountability into it. Even if one woman’s dignity is compromised, they must help in nabbing the perpetrators,’ the sources added.
Facebook has resisted the demand citing its own privacy norms. The company also said that it doesn’t have the technology to track every message sent on WhatsApp. India is Facebook’s largest WhatsApp market, with 400 million active users. Billions of messages are sent every minute, and each one would have to get a unique tracer.
The government official that talked to ET said that the discussions with WhatsApp are ongoing, and the company has not formally communicated its position. WhatsApp has three months to comply with the February notification.
Indian government officials insist that Facebook could trace messages without breaking encryption while pointing out that the government isn’t even looking to enforce a rule in the country’s IT Act that contains a clause requiring companies to decrypt messages as and when ordered by the government. Facebook could not break the WhatsApp encryption even if ordered.
The report notes that WhatsApp’s chief Will Cathcart said earlier this month on a podcast that the company hopes to find a solution that would address India’s traceability concerns without breaking end-to-end encryption.
Facebook has vowed over the years never to remove WhatsApp’s strong encryption. The company also said that its unified messaging system would one day merge Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, and it would all be protected by encryption.