India Supreme Court rejects petition trying to ban encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp
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Whatsapp on an iPhone Image credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images Israel)

Whatsapp on an iPhone Image credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images Israel)

The Indian Supreme Court dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) that aimed to ban encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, and Viber

Privacy proponents can rejoice. Despite activist Sudhir Yadav’s best efforts to get India to ban encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, the Indian Supreme Court decided on Wednesday to dismiss his PIL (public interest litigation).

Yadav’s petition called for the Indian government not only to outlaw the use of WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, Signal, and similar apps, but also to make these companies share their private key to law enforcement during necessary investigations, such as with terrorism and other threats to national security.

While the apex court bench of Chief Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar rejected the PIL, they urged Yadav to file a complaint with the proper authorities: the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT).

Not everyone has been happy with encryption – including Brazil

In April, Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced that they had secured their voice and text messaging platform with stronger encryption than it had before. At this time, WhatsApp users also received a line of text with anyone they were in communication with on the platform saying that, “Messages you send to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption. Tap for more info.” Signal, long seen as one of the best encrypted messaging apps, helped WhatsApp in their efforts to securely protect the content of 1 billion users’ worth of information.

Soon afterwards, a court order in Brazil blocked use to WhatsApp for three days in May because of its inability to cooperate with a criminal investigation. Facebook then wrote an appeal to this decision and a Brazilian judge granted the appeal, making WhatsApp available again across the country. WhatsApp founder Jan Koum applauded the decision on Twitter and reiterated his dedication to user security and privacy:

This was actually the third attempt in Brazil within half a year to restrict WhatsApp. In December, a judge requested to block access to WhatsApp for two days also due to WhatsApp not cooperating with the government about releasing crime-related information, but the judge’s ruling was cancelled the following day. More harshly, in March Brazilian police jailed Facebook executive Diego Dzodan for one night because of Facebook’s “repeated non-compliance with court orders.”

Interestingly, India and Brazil are Facebook’s largest communities outside the U.S. So it’s important for Facebook and WhatsApp to be on the winning end of law enforcement if the company wants to continue their growth overseas.

This is not to say that encryption’s battles are anywhere close to done in the U.S. either: Just take Apple’s fight against the FBI, in which Apple refused the FBI’s request to let them crack into San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone 5C in February. Though Apple managed to successfully not give into the FBI’s orders, the FBI did eventually hack into the shooter’s phone.

In Internet security, the world feels full of absolutes

Encryption is a tricky subject because it is hard to have an opinion in the middle of the spectrum. Either you are a privacy enthusiast and accept that it’s better to encrypt all messaging information so that governments won’t have the ability to snoop on citizens, even though this heavily restricts law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes such as terrorism. Or, you are on the side of national security because you think the police need a back door to encryption so that they can best protect society, despite the fact that this could endanger innocent civilians if the government decides to abuse their power and go after dissidents and protesters with the same technology in the future, for example. Remember also that there is no such thing as a back door just for good guys. A door is a door and anyone including malicious hackers can use it to break past your defenses.

Personally, I would rather support citizens and their right to communicate securely rather than law enforcement in this debate. As with other limitations, the authorities will have to adjust and work within the guidelines. However, it is not an easy decision.

What do you think about encryption? Let us know in the comments below.

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Laura Rosbrow-Telem

About Laura Rosbrow-Telem


I am a social entrepreneurship enthusiast: This is what happens when a former social worker becomes a tech journalist. I mostly write about startups, technology, peace and justice issues, cultural topics, and personal stuff. Before Geektime, I was an editor at the Jerusalem Post and Mic.

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