So is Whatsapp going to be banned or not? Here’s what you need to know
In the wake of their implementing 256-bit end-to-end encryption, the government--along with everyone else--is effectively locked out of end-user WhatsApp communications.
WhatsApp--virtually every smartphone users’ go-to app for text (and in many cases voice) messaging. According to parent company Facebook, the popular messaging app crossed 70 million monthly active users in India in October 2014, and this number is growing steadily since.
So when they recently made their big announcement of enabling end-to-end encryption for all of their users, it was a big deal indeed. From the end-user perspective it’s win-win--all text and voice chats, as well as file transfers are now 256-bit encrypted, where only the sending and receiving party will be able to view the contents of a communication. Never mind a third party, Facebook claims that with this level and method of encryption even they are not privy to these conversations.
Based on a method called the Signal Protocol (read our quick explainer here,) this level of encryption is actually very high--the kind comparable to what’s used in in top secret military communications. This being the case, it’s not such a good thing from the point of view of agencies who may require access to certain end user communications. For example, if the service is used while committing a crime or terrorist act, law and government agencies may want to delve into the preceding communications. This will now not be possible in the case of WhatsApp.
This case, not surprisingly, runs parallel to the San Bernardino attack with the FBI demanding Apple provide a way to decrypt the iPhone used during the shooting. On the one hand authorities maintain that they require access to personal communications in such situations, while companies such as Apple and Facebook maintain that doing so would open up a hornet’s nest of instances that would result in violations to data privacy.
So where does this leave a regular WhatsApp user?
Currently, the Indian government’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) regulates only Internet Services Providers (ISPs,) including Reliance Communications, Airtel and a host of other private players. And these regulations are quite rigid, encompassing securing a licence, and requiring the provider to obtain a special licence when implementing on their network any encryption strength exceeding 40-bit.
In the case of WhatsApp (also Skype, Viber, Google Hangouts and the numerous other mobile communications apps in use today,) these are classified as Over The Top (OTT) services. As yet, the government does not regulate these players and does not have any specific set of requirements they are required to comply with.
In this midst of this ambiguity, WhatsApp announcing 256-bit end-to-end encryption comes at a very opportune time--where it now effectively predates any clear law on the subject. In this case, any move by the government to attempt to have these companies retract their implementation of such encryption standards would be met with great resistance.
Back in September 2015, there was a Draft National Encryption Policy proposed by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY,) one that was quite draconian, and was swiftly shot down. But there is a law that deals with the government accessing encrypted communications.
Section 69 of the IT Act 2000 basically states that the Central Government or a State Government may have the power to monitor, decrypt or intercept information through any computer resource, in the interest of protecting the nation and investigating any legal offence. However it was later clarified (quite curiously, I might add) that WhatsApp did not fall under the purview of this law.
So whether the government now decides to leverage this particular law to implement their ability to access encrypted digital communications is unclear at this point.
The bottom line
This new and significant technology evolution--like every new and significant technology evolution--can potentially be used by good and bad elements. And if you fall among the former, using WhatsApp is perfectly legal. For now.
And if there ever is a change in this status quo--as there has been in the entire Net Neutrality debate that played out last year--we can be sure that it will be hotly debated, rallied and argued before reaching any conclusive end.