“We have been asking for the same thing over the past year,” a senior MeitY official told MediaNama, referring to USA, UK and Australia’s open letter “requesting” Facebook to not implement end-to-end encryption on its messaging services without backdoor access for governments. “This proves that we have not been asking for something funny or mischievous. It’s a concern among other countries as well; there is nothing different about our concerns,” the official said.
The official stressed on the need to address problems faced by law enforcement agencies. “These problems have to be addressed rather than side-lined by short-sighted Facebook as an assault on privacy,” he said. “Nobody wants to throw away privacy. All these countries are democratic countries and they are also facing a problem,” he added.
On being asked about WhatsApp’s stance in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court that such traceability is technically impossible and changing the platform would undermine users’ privacy, the official said,
“Let Facebook understand the concerns, and together we can work towards a solution. It is unreasonable for Facebook to just say no. Each government has its own concerns. Facebook cannot be mulish in their response.”
An unnamed official had earlier told the Economic Times, “If Facebook now tells us this cannot be done, we will refer them to the [open] letter from their own [the US] Attorney General, since Facebook is a US-registered company. We will ask them what actions have they taken on that.”
“This validates our position on traceability, which we have been consistently articulating over the last one year. We were among the first to raise it globally. If anything, it has made our job easier now,” a MeitY official reportedly told ET. The open letter by the USA, UK, and Australia asks for backdoor access to content of the messages, not traceability.
Traceability or decryption: What does the Indian govt want?
It’s worth noting that MeitY hasn’t asked for backdoor access to messages in the past, but assistance in tracing the originator. So far, IT Minister R.S. Prasad had called for traceability, not decryption. In fact, during his July 2019 meeting with Will Cathcart, the global head of WhatsApp, Prasad said that traceability would be WhatsApp’s responsibility. The confusion between traceability, finding the originator, and end-to-end encryption occurs because neither the Indian laws, nor the courts have defined what the three of them mean. He also conflated these terms in his recent interview with the Economic Times,
“What I have been pushing for is being done by America, England, Australia and others. They are pushing for decryption. Now we have a global support on the matter, as far as law enforcement is concerned, you have to do decryption. … They have to share [the origin of the message] … But who is the originator, that they will have to tell. They told us about many of their plans but the issue of [tracing the] origin of the message is still not resolved.”
Thus far, MeitY and the Government of India haven’t clarified their stance on traceability and on encryption, both in the Madras HC and the Supreme Court. The MeitY official told us that the ministry will “respond in time”. “The issue is ongoing in two courts and it will reach its logical conclusion,” he said. Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2008 gives the rules under which law enforcement agencies can ask for decryption.
In the meanwhile, in the aftermath of the open letter, Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly maintained that despite the risk of child exploitation, Facebook would remain committed to implementing end-to-end encryption across its messaging services.