Data privacy concerns: Government’s move to amend IT Act to trace social media messages faces resistance

By: | Published: January 6, 2019 4:31 AM

Activists air concerns in meet with government

Data privacy, IT Act, WhatsApp, IPDR, India, email networksThe genesis of the current deliberations of the government with industry stakeholders are incidents of lynching and violence, which are believed to have occurred due to rumours of fake news spreading from WhatsApp.

The government’s move to amend Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, to trace and intercept messages on social media platforms, has met with some resistance by advocacy groups related to internet freedom. At a meeting convened by ministry of electronics and information technology with activists on Saturday, the latter voiced their concerns, stating that such moves could endanger freedom of expression.

The basic elements of the proposed changes are that social media platforms will be required to give assistance to any government agency within 72 hours of request; they will also need to trace the originator of the information on their respective platforms; the platforms will need to remove access to unlawful acts as ordered by an appropriate government agency; and the platforms need to deploy automated tools to remove and disable access to unlawful information or content.

Further, such rules will apply to social media platforms having more than five million users and they need to have a permanent registered office in India and also appoint a nodal point of contact for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies. While some experts said the proposed measures are an attempt by the government to snoop on private citizens, others felt that any such move should be handled cautiously.

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Meity officials, on their part, allayed such fears and reiterated that to curb misuse of social media, the amendments are required and that there’s no attempt to curb freedom of speech. “We are asking to trace origin of messages that lead to unlawful activities without breaking encryption,” an official said. The official further explained that like law enforcement agencies get access to call records to solve a case in case of telecom operators, the same mechanism should be applied to internet platforms too.

The genesis of the current deliberations of the government with industry stakeholders are incidents of lynching and violence, which are believed to have occurred due to rumours of fake news spreading from WhatsApp. The government subsequently asked WhatsApp to check the spread of false messages on its platform and the social media platform did take a number of steps like restricting the number of times a message could be forwarded and adding a forward label to forwarded messages.
However, the social media platform expressed its inability to trace the origin of such messages, seeking refuge in its privacy rules and stating that the messages are encrypted and it cannot read them.

Technology experts, however, maintain that while messages on WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted and cannot be read by WhatsApp, the company can trace the origin of the messages through source code. Source codes are used in mobile phones and e-mail networks to trace messages. While in phone networks it is called call data record, in e-mails it is called internet protocol data record (IPDR).

However, for such traceability, there needs to be a domestic entity that is bound by local laws mandating how long the data is stored by the company concerned. For instance, today WhatsApp is not registered as a company in India. There’s no policy on local data storage and for what time period. Though WhatsApp cooperates with investigating agencies upon a complaint, globally also it is not regulated as to how long it needs to store data. Post-discussions on Saturday, Meity extended the date for industry stakeholders and citizens to send their comments on the proposed changes to January 28. The earlier date was January 15.

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