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India 'helpless' against fake news spreading through WhatsApp

An Indian minister admits the government can't do much to stop "objectionable content" spreading on WhatsApp because it has no access to encrypted content.

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India wants to punish people for spreading undesirable content on WhatsApp, but it can't because of encryption.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When India threatened to put people responsible for fake news behind bars, it didn't exactly know how it'd do that.

The Indian Minister for Electronics and Information Technology admitted that the country is "helpless." It's unable to access "objectionable" content because of encryption, according to The Economic Times.

WhatsApp's encryption is the only obstruction to the government's ability to act on reported content, added the minister. The government would otherwise be able to use laws that are already in place to punish people for spreading fake news. 

"Instances of objectionable videos being uploaded through mobile phones and shared through WhatsApp have been noticed," he said. "According to WhatsApp, the messages are end-to-end encrypted and they and any third-party cannot read them. In other words, the messages are only seen by the sender and the receiver."

"WhatsApp provides a feature to report any objectionable content. However, they also admit that since they do not have the contents of the messages available with them, it limits their ability to take action," he added. "A user can take [a] screenshot of the content and share it with appropriate law enforcement authorities."

India is not the only country expressing frustration with encryption. Countries such as Australia and the UK have cited security concerns when calling for tech companies, especially Facebook's WhatsApp, to give authorities access to content when required. Messaging app Telegram has been admonished for creating a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks in countries such as Indonesia and Russia.

While no backdoors to encrypted content have been created, companies are responsive to governments' repeated calls for action to fight terrorism. Facebook, for instance, is part of a joint forum created with other tech giants such as Google's YouTube and Twitter to combat extremism.

Despite what the minister said, India isn't entirely helpless in its move to rid undesirable content from WhatsApp. One WhatsApp group administrator was arrested in the country in May for sharing an edited  image of India's prime minister so it looked "ugly and obscene." The arrest was made just two weeks after an Indian magistrate announced new rules forbidding WhatsApp users to spread fake news on the app, saying it will hold WhatsApp group administrators accountable for the spread of any such content.

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