GOI asks WhatsApp India head to suspend new privacy policy

The government of India has asked WhatsApp head, Will Cathcart asking him to “respect the informational privacy and data security of Indian users” and suspend the new terms of the privacy policy in India. In a letter, the government has expressed strong concerns over the policy.

On 4th January 2021, WhatsApp updates its Terms of Service to allow sharing of data of its users with the instant-messaging app’s parent company, Facebook and other firms. This data would include phone number and location in a scheme to analyze and increase consumers of Facebook. After Telegram founder, Pavel Durov capitalizing the situation there has been a shift of usage to other messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram. Elon Musk was an accomplice in this transition as he tweeted, “Use Signal” to his 33.5 million followers. WhatsApp remains to be the largest market with 400 million users.

The government sent a questionnaire to WhatsApp to secure more details about its data-sharing plans and business practices. It has solicited the exact categories of data that the app collects from Indian users, details of the permissions and user consent looked for by the utility of each of these in relation to the functioning and particular service provided. The company has been questioned whether it studies users based on their consumption of the app.

Another piece of information that the government is looking for is the difference between WhatsApp’s privacy policies in India and other nations along with details of its data security, information security, cyber-security, and encryption policies.

On 17th January, WhatsApp addressed this controversy by posting official stories on the app to reach every user. The statement made on its privacy policy was that it “does not affect the privacy of your messages with your family and friends in any way” and was only related to businesses. Another status mentioned that messages, calls and call logs are highly encrypted and therefore, no one views the same.

The government has said that the updated Terms of Service will lead to the gathering of “a vast amount of highly invasive and granular metadata.” Keeping in mind that Facebook has 411.5 million users itself in India, there is a monopoly of data collection.

A person close to the matter, cited the letter to the WhatsApp chief, “With this, any meaningful distinction between WhatsApp and Facebook companies will cease to exist. Given the high user base of WhatsApp and Facebook in India, the consolidation of this sensitive information also exposes a very large segment of Indian citizens to greater security risks and vulnerabilities creating a honeypot of information.”

It continued to read, “This all-or-nothing approach takes away any meaningful choice from Indian users. This approach leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to face users into a bargain, which may infringe on their interests in relation to informational privacy and consent as laid down by the Honorable Supreme Court of India in its judgement of Justice K S Puttaswamy vs Union of India (2017). The Personal Data Protection Bill is under consideration, then why these changes.”

The letter also accounts for the “integration of data between WhatsApp and other Facebook companies” which doesn’t allow the user to quit being part of the policy as a choice.

It has been reported that the government has “raised strong objections against the differential treatment by WhatsApp to its users in India and in the European Union.” Adding that this move has received severe backlash and “shows a lack of respect for the rights and interests of Indian citizens, who form one of the largest user bases for WhatsApp.”

The government highlighted the treatment as “prejudicial to the interests of Indian users and is viewed with serious concern.”

“With reference to this, the letter reminds WhatsApp that the Government of India owes a sovereign responsibility to its citizens to ensure that their interests are not compromised and therefore it calls upon WhatsApp to respond to concerns raised in this letter”, said the same person mentioned above.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has called upon Facebook officials on 21st January 2021 as privacy concerns are heightened about WhatsApp.

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