MediaNama got exclusive access to WhatsApp’s response to IIT professor Dr V. Kamakoti’s submission (available below) on enabling traceability on WhatsApp without compromising end-to-end encryption.

Submitted by Nilesh Agrawal, a software engineer at WhatsAppp, the response argues that Dr Kamakoti’s “proposals would fundamentally change WhatsApp’s platform, fail to achieve their goal and cause significant harm”. Kamakoti had made two proposals in his submission:

  1. Make the originator’s number visible to all recipients; or
  2. Encrypt the sender’s phone number in the metadata of the message that can be decrypted only by WhatsApp after relevant court orders are produced by the law enforcement agencies

Fundamentally change WhatsApp’s platform

    “force WhatsApp to fundamentally change its platform and wholly undermine its end-to-end encryption as users would be afraid to freely express themselves if their private thoughts would forever be linked to their identities”

Proposals not a viable solution to traceability

1. “Neither would correctly identify the originatior of unlawful content in the most common ways that internet users share content”

  • “It is common for internet users to copy and paste content obtained from another source. Under both Proposals, [the WhatsApp user] … will be tagged as the originator … even though [s/]he was not the originator.”
  • “Internet is much bigger than WhatsApp, and many people frequently use WhatsApp to share content that they get from many other sources … the Proposal would brand him[/her] as the originator of the content even though [s/]he did not originate it.”
  • “When the person shares [a] screenshot through WhatsApp, the Proposal would brand that person as the originator of that content even though that person clearly did not originate it.”
  • “There would be no technological way for innocent people to prove to law enforcement that they did not originate the content”

2. “Both would enable and likely encourage bad actors to attribute unlawful content to innocent users”

  • “… bad actors could use modified versions of the WhatsApp application to attribute a different phone number to a message.”
  • “Through the use of unauthorized, modified versions of the WhatsApp application, the Proposals would enable and likely  encourage a bad actor to send unlawful content and make it appear as if it came from someone else.””
  • This may result in an innocent person being persecuted and perhaps incarcerated … it would be difficult for the innocent person to prove that she[/he] did not send the message, since the only identifying information is the phone number which can be easily manipulated by the modified WhatsApp application. … [WhatsApp can’t prove user’s innocence] as WhatsApp is unable to access message content due to end-to-end encryption.”
  • “… there is no way for WhatsApp to detect, let alone shut down, every modified version of WhatsApp. … the Proposals would likely encourage the development of even more of these unauthorized apps …”
  • “The Proposals would likely encourage SIM cloning”

3. “Both would subject innocent people to investigation and possible persecution for sharing content for purely legitimate reasons”

  • “The Proposals do not consider the fact that users, in forwarding content (e.g., a photo or video), often do not provide the contextual information that originally accompanied the content.”

Arguments against Proposal 1:

  1. “This would make it easy for anyone in the forwarding chain to subject the originator to the risk of humiliation, harassment, retaliation, and physical harm whenve they do not agree with the user’s views.”
  2. “There are no procedural controls or safeguards that could prevent this abuse, since the originator’s phone number would automatically be disclosed to every recipient of the message.”
  3. “Proposal 1 would forever reveal the originator’s phone number to every recipient of the message — forward after forward. This would give bad actors easy access to the identities of many users and the content they sent … greatly increase the ability of bad actors to attribute unlawful content to innocent users as the originators of the content.”
  4. “Would lead users to believe that the phone number attached to a message reflects the true originator of that content, when in reality this ‘orgiinator information’ cannot be verigied and, to the contrary, can easily be manipulated. … subject to more successful ‘phishing’ expeditions by bad actors.”

Arguments against Proposal 2:

  1. “Innocent users would not even know that unlawful content had been attributed to them until law enforcement requested originator information from WhatsApp, making it even easier for bad actors to attribute unlawful content to innocent users.”
  2. “… would force WhatsApp to create and store a single master private key for all of its 1.5 billion users, violating the principle of data minimization and rendering WhatsApp an extremely attractive target for hackers.”
  3. “It is not feasible to implement this Proposal for Indian users only. … WhatsApp would likely face several legal challenges if it were compelled to apply the Professor’s Proposals for all users across the globe. It is also not feasible to determine the nationality of a user under WhatsApp’s current system.”

4. Central government is coming up with guidelines; MEITY is the appropriate channel

  • “The Ministry of Electornics and Informtion Technology, Union of India, is currently considering whether, when, and how intermediaries should be compelled to trace originator information. Allowing MEITY to vet the proposals is fully consistent with the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s view that, rather than make policy decisions involving technical issues, Court should defer to the authorities best-suited to examine rival expert contentions and competiting technical claims.”
  • “If the Professor believes that his Proposals should be considered, he should submit them to MEITY which is currently considering whether, when, and how intermediaries should be compelled to trace originator information. This effort is being undertaken by MEITY though a comprehensive consultative process in connection with amending the Information Technology (Intemrediaryies Guidelies) Rules, 2011.”
  • “A specific proposal along the lines proposed by the Professor has already been submitted to MEItY for consideration. MEITY could give the Proposals fue consideration, including its technological feasibility and ramifications, in light of the input received from hundreds of stakeholders.”