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SC dismisses case asking for Whatsapp licensing in India, but this isn’t over yet


Updates below

Earlier: A case filed asking for the ban on messaging applications such as Whatsapp, which use end to end encryption, has been dismissed by the Supreme Court of India, MediaNama has learned. According to a Rahul Narayan, a lawyer present in court, the case got dismissed within a few seconds of being called out. “The case was dismissed as the court found no merit in the pleas raised by the petitioner. However, after the Chief Justice indicated that case would be dismissed, as there were sufficient number of government authorities taking care of national security, the petitioner sought to withdraw the petition, and approach an appropriate authority, with respect to the grievances raised in the petition,” Narayan said.

Update: “I will make another representation to the DoPT and the Ministry on Information Technology in two-three days, and will ask them to either hear the matter or reject it. If nothing happens, then I’ll go to the telecom tribunal (TDSAT), if they can look into the issue”, Sudhir Yadav, the RTI activist and a web developer, who had filed this case in the Supreme Court, told MediaNama. Before going to the Supreme Court, Yadav had made a representation to the DoPT and the Ministry of IT, but they “hadn’t taken any action.” If there isn’t any action from the government, Yadav will go back to the Supreme Court of India. Clearly, this isn’t over yet.

Note: It’s likely that Yadav is referring here to DoT (the Department of Telecom), and not DoPT

Yadav’s petition: What did he want and why?

What did he want? Yadav isn’t against encryption of messages. He wanted stronger encryption than 256-bit as long as the government got access to the private key when it wanted to decrypt any message. In April 2016, WhatsApp said all the messages exchanged on the app would have end-to-end encryption by default. As a result of this, even WhatsApp cannot read its users’ messages, making it virtually impossible for them to furnish any user data when governments requests it. Yadav had a problem with that.

“Whatsapp is owned by Facebook, and Facebook has another messaging app called Facebook Messenger. That has 256 bit encryption as well. However, they have the private key, so that they have the ability to provide information to the government if it is demanded. But they can’t do that with Whatsapp because they don’t have the private key,” he told Medianama in an earlier interview.

Why did he want it: He argues that the company’s decision to encrypt its messages end-to-end might put India’s national security at risk. “Compared to America, India is a poorer country with not as many resources and technology, and we’re in a troubled neighborhood with Pakistan, ISIS, and there are also Naxals (internally). We need keys so that we can protect the unity and integrity of India,” said Yadav in May.

The debate around end to end encryption

Governments across the world are pushing for lower encryption norms because that will help them break into all digital communications and storage, and check whether someone is a terrorist or not. Earlier this year, Apple locked horns with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over giving access to the iPhone of one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shooting. Apple refused to create a backdoor entry into iOS for the law enforcement authorities to get access to the attacker’s phone. The company argued that it will impinge on the privacy of its users as such requests from law enforcement authorities may not be limited to just this one case.

In India, draft encryption policy asked citizens to store all their communications in plain text for 90 days and banned bulk encryption systems. Such attempts create a system which not just the government but also hackers can exploit to compromise our security. Once such systems are built into software and communication networks, you will be vulnerable; the easier it is for governments to access your data, the easier it becomes for hackers as well.

(more at: We are data)

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