New Delhi / Govt may use Pegasus spyware row to push for WhatsApp traceability

Inc42 : Nov 08, 2019, 12:48 PM

The trouble just got bigger for Facebook-owned Whatsapp, as the Indian government is thinking of using Pegasus spyware debacle to back its claim for WhatsApp traceability.

Earlier, the Indian government’s only concern with WhatsApp was the widespread use of its platform to spread fake news, misinformation and other questionable content affecting national security. But with the news of WhatsApp being used to spy on individuals has made the government question the security of the instant messaging app even further.

Currently, the Supreme Court (SC) is hearing a lawsuit demanding traceability of the origin of the messages sent on WhatsApp. For this, the SC is also taking into account Indian government opinion.

The Indian government has been wanting to regulate social media platforms since last year and WhatsApp traceability is being considered as just another way to do it. The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) has been working on formulating regulations for social media platforms.

Is The NSO Lawsuit A Distraction?

WhatsApp has been claiming to be a victim of the Pegasus spyware attack itself. On October 30, 2019, WhatsApp announced that it has filed a case against NSO Group in the US Federal Court for violating the companies policies and compromising users’ privacy.

WhatsApp alleged that it has proof that the Q Cyber Technologies-owned NSO group is behind the Pegasus spyware attack. WhatsApp added the attackers had used servers and internet-hosting services that were previously associated with the Israel-based NSO group. Moreover, it also claimed to have tracked certain accounts — which were used to attack and spy — back to NSO.

The Indian government also believes that WhatsApp’s lawsuit against NSO Group is an attempt to push back any regulation on the platform which various governments are seeking to implement, including India.

The Indian government is even more sceptical because the lawsuit coincides with India working on Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018 that makes social media platforms more responsible for the content they share.

Another medium to ensure regulation on WhatsApp is by demanding traceability of the messages. But the company has been claiming that WhatsApp messages are encrypted end-to-end, which makes it impossible for even WhatsApp to breach in.

A government official also told ET that it doesn’t want to break the messaging app’s encryption code, but just wants to know the origin point of messages that spread objectionable content.

What Is WhatsApp’s Defence Against Traceability?

India is the largest market for the instant messaging app with 400 Mn monthly active users. The platform is gaining even more popularity in the region, statistically, four out of five smartphone users are on WhatsApp. Any negative judgement, in this case, could harm WhatsApp’s position in India, and open up room for rivals.

Moreover, the company has been citing its emphasis on users’ privacy, which will be hampered once the WhatsApp messages become traceable. Moreover, it claims that, back in January, WhatsApp had also called the Indian government’s demand to hand over encrypted messages “overboard” and “not possible”.