WhatsApp is one of the most used mobile phone apps across the world. In India, it has played a pivotal role in bridging the communication gap by providing access to free internet messaging across the world even on the slowest of networks. From political propaganda circulating en masse to sublime humour being shared on groups every day, WhatsApp is among the most used apps in India with a 70 million strong user base.
However, the instant messaging giant could be banned if 27-year-old Sudhir Yadav has his way in the Supreme Court of India. A resident of Gurgaon, Yadav is a Right to Information activist who believes that fighting “systematic lapses” is his goal in life. He has exposed wrongful allocation of plots to the rich in Haryana and also managed to get two students back in school after they were expelled for not having Aadhaar cards. This time, his target is his own addiction – WhatsApp.
Yadav said that he is addicted to WhatsApp because of its ease of use and its “revolutionary” end-to-end encryption which keeps texts secure from the prying eyes of third parties. But it is this encryption that has also got him concerned about national security making him file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court, asking for a ban which is scheduled to be heard next week.
Yadav claimed that he has only filed the petition because recently introduced WhatsApp encryption makes it impossible for the government to intercept and read messages exchanged between “suspicious people”.
“I know WhatsApp is a great app and I spend hours on it but this is about you and me,” he said. “If we know that information on drugs and rave parties is going through WhatsApp and the government can’t decrypt these messages, then it’s harmful to the country.”
According to Yadav, WhatsApp’s 256 bit encryption means that breaking into a single text could take the Indian government more than a few centuries and that’s something that terrorists could use to their advantage.
“Why are we letting an app function which can’t provide us information exchanged that is in the interest of national security? We don’t need anymore terrorism in the world, especially not in India."
It is not the first time that questions have been raised about WhatsApp encryption in the country as there was speculation in April when the company launched this feature that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India could soon step in to issue long-due regulations on services such as Skype and WhatsApp.
However, Yadav’s campaign against the app could trigger a domino effect much sooner. His petition names at least 20 other such instant messaging apps including Hike, Telegram and Viber.
The social media giant Facebook owns WhatsApp – it bought the company for an extravagant $19 billion in 2014 and now it runs WhatsApp alongside its own Messenger app. But Facebook Messenger is not on Yadav’s radar – because he claims that the app’s encrypted messages can still be intercepted.
“Both have similar encryptions but at least Facebook has the key to all messages sent on Messenger,” Yadav said, adding that it’s the law that needs to be changed. “The problem is that we are still ruled by old rules which don’t mention encryption at all. We just need to have a policy that allows government access in exceptional cases.”
But who decides what are “exceptional cases”? Yadav argued that in an ideal world, a policy would allow the government to seek permission from court before intercepting or accessing messages.
“The Indian judiciary is independent and trustworthy while the government is always full of goons and thugs,” Yadav said.
If the court were actually to accede to his demand though, Yadav will be one of the first out there, trawling through apps to find a replacement.
“I love WhatsApp but I will have to find an alternative if it’s banned," he said. "I don’t know if there is an app that good but I will keep looking.”
And what happens if SC decides that his petition doesn’t have enough merit? Yadav said that he will simply go back to using WhatsApp.
“I can’t do much if the SC thinks it’s not harmful for the nation’s interest. It’s not a personal issue, it’s a national issue so my usage won’t be affected.”