Ankit Sharma Sharma
Green tea Addict | A Tree Hugger | Born for Change
WhatsApp has decided to accept all the demands of the IT Ministry following the fake news row gripping the messenger service. However, it has refused to add any feature that would help in tracing the origins of a message, saying that such a feature would affect the users’ privacy.
According to the Times Of India, WhatsApp claimed in its response to the government that it could not break its protocols surrounding end-to-end encryption, which means that WhatsApp or any other third party cannot read your messages while they are being sent. The messaging app has instead introduced new features limiting message forwarding to five people at a time.
Reportedly, WhatsApp Head Chris Daniels had met IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad where the government had asked the messaging app to set up a local corporate entity and find a tech based solution to trace the origin of the fake messages which are circulated on the platform.
According to PTI, the government had warned the company that it will be treated as abettors and will face legal consequences if they remain mute spectators to the growing menace of fake rumours on its platform.
Reportedly, fake rumours of child-lifters being circulated on social media have led to a total of 61 cases of mob lynchings across the country, and death toll reaching to 24 since the beginning of the year.
In all of these cases, the victims were assaulted on mere suspicions and no evidence of child-lifting was found against any of the victims after the assault. In most, if not all of these cases, fake news of child-lifters were spread using WhatsApp.
According to Financial Express, the Ministry of Electronics and IT sent a notice to WhatsApp on July 3, asking it to take immediate steps against any misuse on its platform, including spreading rumours of the kind that have led to the mob lynchings across the country.
Reportedly, the company responded stating that it was horrified by the acts of violence, and had decided to introduce a new feature of labelling forwarded messages to let people know whether a message was genuinely created by the sender or was mass-forwarded. The company also decided to use ‘suspicious link detection’ to check fake news circulation.
However, the mob lynching of a 32-year-old software engineer in Bidar prompted the government to send a second notice to the Facebook-owned platform, asking it to seriously address the concerns surrounding the false information being circulated through the messenger service.
Recently, the WhatsApp Research Awards were announced by the company to researchers exploring issues related to misinformation spread on WhatsApp. The government, however, has found these efforts to be insufficient and has demanded the company to come up with more sensitive and effective solutions to the problem. The Centre has also asked the company to have a corporate set-up in India so that it becomes accountable under Indian laws. Presently, since the company does not have any branch office in the country, any problems arising in India will only be heard in American courts.
WhatsApp has agreed to set up a corporate entity in India, as announced by Minister Prasad following his meeting with the WhatsApp CEO.
According to The Wire, there are other ways to achieve traceability without breaking the privacy codes of the encrypted platform. As explained in the report, WhatsApp cannot read our messages. However, it can read and store metadata of any message being sent through the app- information like the IP address, time of send, etc. Metadata is not end-to-end encrypted and remains available to WhatsApp.
Reportedly, it also stores popular photos and videos on its servers to improve file transfer speed for better user experience. What the platform does is that it uniquely labels every single attachment being sent through it. So when we are forwarding a message, if it contains a file with a label that already exists on its servers, then it will not upload it from the user’s phone- instead, it will send its copy of the file that was there on its servers.
This proves that even with end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp can track a file across its servers without actually knowing what’s there in the file. Combining this with the metadata stored by WhatsApp, the company can potentially track who sent a specific file to whom, and find the origins of a sinister message, all without having read any of its contents.
With 200 million users, India is WhatsApp’s largest market base. Although the messaging app has started to device mechanisms to curb the menace of fake news, it should also keep in mind the repercussions of fake messages.
Presently, the problem of traceability of messages is what lets culprits or perpetrators of fake news go scot free. WhatsApp needs to keep that in mind and set proper precautions in place.
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