Representational Image. (File photo)
Representational Image. (File photo)

Government writes to WhatsApp, asks it to withdraw new privacy policy

It has also issued a detailed questionnaire to WhatsApp seeking more details about its data-sharing protocols and business practices
By Deeksha Bhardwaj
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 10:41 AM IST

The government has written to WhatsApp head Will Cathcart asking him to “respect the informational privacy and data security of Indian users” and withdraw the latest terms and privacy policy in India proposed by the messaging service for users. In a letter, it has expressed strong concerns over the policy days after HT on January 11 reported that the government was closely examining the matter.

WhatsApp on January 4 updated its privacy policy to allow it to share user data with its parent company Facebook and other group firms . The data includes location and phone number.The move has triggered a backlash across the world and led to a surge in the downloading of alternative messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram. India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with 400 million users.

The government has sent a questionnaire to WhatsApp seeking more details about its data-sharing protocols and business practices. It has sought the exact categories of data that the application collects from Indian users, details of the permissions and user consent sought by and utility of each of these with respect to the functioning and specific service provided. The service has been asked whether it profiles users based on their use of the application.

The government has also sought details of the difference between WhatsApp’s privacy policies in India and other countries along with details of its data security, information security, cyber-security, privacy, and encryption policies.

A WhatsApp spokesperson said, “We wish to reinforce that this update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook. Our aim is to provide transparency and new options available to engage with businesses so they can serve their customers and grow. WhatsApp will always protect personal messages with end-to-end encryption so that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see them. We are working to address misinformation and remain available to answer any questions.”

Also read | The government can, and must, stand for privacy

The government has highlighted the latest policy will lead to the collection of “a vast amount of highly invasive and granular metadata”.

“With this, any meaningful distinction between WhatsApp and Facebook companies will cease to exist. Given the huge 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,” a person familiar with the matter said, citing the contents of the letter to the WhatsApp chief.

“This all-or-nothing approach takes away any meaningful choice from Indian users. This approach leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to force users into a bargain, which may infringe on their interests in relation to informational privacy and information security. It is expected that Facebook will value the principles of privacy and consent as laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in its judgment of Justice K S Puttaswamy vs Union of India (2017). The PDP [Personal Data Protection] Bill is under consideration, then why these changes.”

The letter noted the “integration of data between WhatsApp and other Facebook companies” denies the user the choice to opt out of the policy.

Also read | Don’t use WhatsApp if concerned about data: Delhi HC

The government has “raised strong objections against the differential treatment by WhatsApp to its users in India and in the European Union”. It added this has triggered serious criticism and “shows lack of respect for the rights and interests of Indian citizens, who form one of the largest user bases for WhatsApp”.

The government underlined such treatment is “prejudicial to the interests of Indian users and is viewed with serious concern. “In this context, it [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 person cited above.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook officials on January 21 amid privacy concerns about WhatsApp.

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