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Desist from demands to break encryption

The government’s move to direct WhatsApp to divulge the identities of those who first shared certain videos on the social messaging platform is an exercise in intrusion of privacy, and cannot be legally, morally or politically justified. The government plans to issue the order under Section 4(2) of the Information Technology Rules, 2021.

The videos that the government wants to target are deepfakes of politicians, which it thinks will be used in elections or for purposes of discrediting them. While it is true that such videos can be used for wrong and dishonourable purposes, demanding that the social media company identify the originator would amount to excessive use of executive power, unsanctioned by law. Social media platforms have challenged the validity of those parts of the rules demanding the disclosure of the identity of the originator of messages and videos, on the ground of violation of the right to privacy.

The government has argued that the exercise of the right to privacy, as other rights, is subject to reasonable restrictions. A specific case in the matter is already being heard by the Tripura High Court. The court has stayed an order which had asked WhatsApp to reveal the originator of a chat that contained a fake resignation letter of Chief Minister Manik Saha. There are two issues involved in such directives. One is the scope of Section 4(2) of the IT Rules in dealing with such situations. The section can only be used in cases that involve “sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States andpublic order.” It is clear that the Tripura case or the cases that might involve politicians’ videos do not fall in this category. The Tripura High Court held that “the extent of the threat to public order” was not specifically addressed in the order to WhatsApp.

Once such demands are made on social media intermediaries and they comply with them or are forced to do so, they will continue to be made for purposes that suit the authorities. The conditions specified under the section will be diluted or interpreted accordingly. This has happened in many other instances where citizens have been proceeded against on flimsy charges under draconian laws.Once a precedent has been set, it can be used against critics of the government. An order to divulge the identity of the first originator would involve breaking the platform’s end-to-end encryption, and that undermines the privacy of all users of the platform. People are entitled to privacy as users of the platforms and as citizens. Technical and legal safeguards should be used to ensure that Section 4(2) is not misused by governments.

(Published 19 October 2023, 20:41 IST)

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