WhatsApp boss says govt demand for weakening encryption is Orwellian, will lead to constant surveillance

WhatsApp head Will Cathcart has said that the governments' demands to weaken encryption are Orwellian which puts the personal freedom of users at stake through surveillance.

Story highlights
  • WhatsApp head Will Cathcart has termed government demands to disable encryption as Orwellian.
  • WhatsApp faces demands to weaken encryption from India, Brazil, the US, and the UK.
  • WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook, and Instagram do not feature end-to-end encryption for chats.

WhatsApp head Will Cathcart has termed government demands to weaken encryption as Orwellian that will put the personal freedom of users at stake through surveillance. WhatsApp, which brought in its new privacy laws, is currently fighting the Indian government in court for its new IT rules that demand the traceability and identification of the first originator of a message. This means that the app will have to break the end-to-end encryption of chats no longer keeping them private. WhatsApp faces similar demands from Brazil, which is its second-largest market after India. The United States of America, Canada, and the UK have also pressured WhatsApp to weaken its encryption.

"Imagine there was a proposal from the government to put a video camera in every living room in a country hooked up to the internet, so the government can turn it on when they're investigating a crime," Cathcart told The Guardian. "I think people immediately recoil in horror at that proposal because they have a built-up understanding of just how bad that would be. And yet it feels like people can make identical proposals for a digital world. And because it's technical, sometimes the horror of what's being proposed is lost," he added

Cathcart told the publication and reiterated that WhatsApp's updated privacy policy does not enable the app to read private chats. "The concern we heard, and the proof that they care, was 'We're worried you're gonna start reading our messages'. We're not. The privacy of people's personal conversations did not change at all in any way with our update, let alone around end-to-end encryption. We think it is very important that people in the long term understand how the privacy of their personal messages is protected."

While WhatsApp boss is talking of encryption loopholes and the potential for entail perpetual monitoring, it is worth noting that Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, do monitor users rather pervasively through its Facebook and Instagram apps. Although this user's monitoring and data collection happens after users agree to the terms and conditions.

WhatsApp had first announced that the new terms of service would come into effect from February 8, 2021. However, the company delayed the update in India to May 15 because it was criticised massively with people switching to alternatives like Telegram and Signal. The Indian government asked WhatsApp to withdraw the new policy but WhatsApp noted that it complied with all the existing IT rules and that it would stand its ground till the personal data protection bill goes into effect.

Whatsapp is currently working on an ad campaign in the UK and Germany over the next 15 weeks highlighting the "everyday benefits of end-to-end encryption." Cathcart also emphasised the changes that have been brought about in law enforcement over the last 30 years and noted that technology has only helped in that area as lives became more digital.

"All we're saying is that the most sensitive thing, which is the private messages people send, should stay private. Beyond that, we do incredible work with the limited data we have," he said.
Cathcart noted that WhatsApp bans 300,000 accounts a month on suspicion of sharing images of child sexual abuse and reports 400,000 leads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US every year, based on information such as IP addresses, profile pictures and user reports.