India`s IT ministry writes to Whatsapp; asks it to withdraw new policy

Ruben Fields
January 20, 2021

MeitY has raised strong objections to the alleged differential treatment by WhatsApp to its users in India and the European Union, saying it shows lack of respect for the rights of Indian citizens, who form one of the largest user bases for the messaging app. "Don't join it. It is a voluntary thing, don't accept it. Use some other app", Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva said to the petitioner, a lawyer, who has challenged WhatsApp's new privacy policy which was slated to come into effect in February but has been deferred till May.

The government also pointed out how Indian users are being subjected to differential, discriminatory treatment when compared to European counterparts by being allowed less choice.

Following WhatsApp's announcement that it would update its privacy policy, Signal became one of the top downloaded apps on Android and Apple platforms in India last week. The Indian government's letter said that the new proposed policy ceases any "any meaningful distinction between WhatsApp and Facebook companies" and given the huge user base of both the companies in India, "consolidation of this sensitive information" exposes a "very large segment of Indian citizens" to "greater security risks and vulnerabilities creating a honeypot of information".

"These changes notify users that WhatsApp will collect highly invasive and granular metadata, such as time, frequency and duration of interactions, group names, payments and transaction data, online status, location indicators, as well as any messages shared by users with business accounts.Whether this will enable better provision of services to users or not is beside the point, the issue is the impact it has on informational privacy, data security and user choice".

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Besides, complete technical architecture and server hosting data of Indian users have been asked to be furnished along with details of access to a third party.

WhatsApp has also been asked to provide policy on data and information security, privacy and encryption.

"This approach has the potential to infringe on core values of data privacy, user choice and autonomy of Indian users", it said. "By not providing Indian users with the ability to opt out of this data sharing with other Facebook companies, WhatsApp is treating users with an all-or-nothing approach", the letter said. This basically means that companies can only use the data of their users for the specific goal for which users have given their consent. The letter added that the company should have taken into consideration the fact that India is also working on a Personal Data Protection Bill. It has asked for details of the disparity between WhatsApp's privacy policies in other countries and India. Also, the government wants to know whether WhatsApp captures information about other apps running on the mobile device of the user?

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