The world’s most popular instant messaging service is facing an uphill battle in its fight against a Tamil Nadu courthouse in a lawsuit that may force them to forego or at the very least weaken its renowned privacy policies. As per a report by Buzzfeed, the Madras high court has recently started hearing a case by a couple of petitioners who are asking India to force people to link their WhatsApp accounts to their Aadhar card, which is the country’s controversial biometric ID number for virtually all its residents.
The people in question are Antony Clement Rubin and Janani Krishnamurthy, both private citizens and in their copies of their filings, they describe themselves animal welfare activists. The reason for their petition is to mandate people to link “any email or user account" to their Aadhar card “owing to the rising instances of humiliation, disgrace and defamation [through] cyberbullying and other intolerable activities on social media."
This case is the first of its kind in India to consider traceability on social media and it could set the ball rolling for all tech companies that operate in India to follow suit. Privacy experts believe that this petition is an easy opportunity for India’s nationalist government to force social media platforms to become one-stop surveillance tools.
par Gupta, director of the digital advocacy organization Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said, “If the court directs a product change like breaking or weakening WhatsApp’s encryption, it won’t be limited to just WhatsApp but will extend to pretty much every single product and service that uses encryption in India. Buzzfeed reports that the IFF is an intervener and they have the ability to join any case without the permission of the original litigants in Rubin’s and Krishnamurthy’s petition. Gupta states, “Once you can trace a message, you can use it for methods of social control. That’s the primary objective of this.”
A WhatsApp spokesperson stated in February that the instant messaging platform is “a space for private conversations online.” It went on to add, “Imagine if every message that you sent was kept with a record of the fact that you sent it and with a record of your phone number. That would not be a place for private communications.”
Buzzfeed states, “The government remains focused on personal traceability. In October, it demanded the locations and phone numbers of people using WhatsApp for real-world violence, and in December, it proposed changes to the country’s IT law that would force platforms including WhatsApp to break their user encryption. Last month, it asked the company to digitally fingerprint every message to track the sender.”
India’s IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Traceability shall be [WhatsApp’s] job.”
WhatsApp is reportedly paying close attention to this case and they have summoned its top lawyer, Brian Hennessy to the hearing from California. WhatsApp also hired Arvind Datar and India’s former law minister Kapil Sibal to make its case before the judge. Buzzfeed reports that the arguments against traceability in the high court were stern. WhatsApp stated, “Requiring WhatsApp to trace originator information is disproportionate to the laudable aim of preventing and detecting crimes, particularly since users can easily migrate to encrypted platforms that do not have such an obligation.”
The instant messaging giant went on to state that its end-to-end encryption benefitted citizen’s fundamental rights and in turn enabled journalists, civil society organizations, members of ethnic and religious groups, activists, and artists to exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression “without fear of surveillance or retaliation.”
Buzzfeed reports that WhatsApp stated, “Imposing a traceability requirement would undermine all of these benefits. Journalists could be at risk of retaliation for investigating issues that may be unpopular, civil or political activists could be at risk of retaliation for discussing certain right and criticizing or advocating for politicians or political, and personal information like sexual orientation, health, religious affiliation, Aadhaar, and financial information could be at risk of becoming publicly exposed.”