India is asking messaging service WhatsApp to put a digital fingerprint on every message sent by the service, but without breaking the encryption, according to a report by the Economic Times.
Indian officials want to be able to see where a message came from and how many people interacted with it, either by reading or forwarding, without the official having to read the actual message. This comes after rumors of children being kidnapped spread on the app and a number of people were lynched across the country in 2018.
“Fingerprinting WhatsApp messages will help find the originator of the message. That is all we want,” an official told the news outlet. “We don’t want to read the messages but when we see a problematic message we should be able to go to WhatsApp to help us trace the sender. They have to find a way, it is technically possible.”
WhatsApp said its end-to-end encryption isn’t traceable, and authorities who want to find out where messages on the service came from — ones that feature sexual abuse or cause public disruption — say they can’t because of the technology. They say the metadata that WhatsApp provides doesn’t allow for the capture of people breaking the law.
“It is not acceptable that no one can trace any message. Somebody should be able to trace some messages sometimes. We have reached the limit of anonymity on the internet and that has to go,” another government official said.
Around 300 million to 400 million people use WhatsApp in India, and the company is moving forward with a payments service that hasn’t yet received approval from the government.
In order for it to be able to provide digital fingerprints, officials say, WhatsApp would have to completely overhaul its architecture, a move that would potentially anger privacy activists in other parts of the world.
“This suggestion will theoretically require WhatsApp to have knowledge of each and every message sent on the platform and store it by affixing a unique fingerprint. This may seem simple, but it is not so easy to do,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation. “Traceability will make it easier for government surveillance, which is already unaccountable without any checks and balances.”