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Govt asks Whatsapp to scrap its privacy policy; What is the new Whatsapp Privacy Policy?

The Ministry of Electronics and Information technology has once again asked the administration of Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp to do away with its contentious privacy policy, through an official letter from the ministry on 19th May 2021. According to the letter, MeitY believes that the changes to WhatsApp privacy policy and the manner of introducing the changes undermines the sacrosanct values of informational privacy, data security, and user choice and harms the rights and interests of Indian citizens.

The Ministry has allotted a time of 7 days to WhatsApp in order to address the issue and reply to the notice.

Communication between the IT Ministry and WhatsApp on the issue of the updated privacy policy has been going on since January this year.

  • The Ministry has recently warned WhatsApp once again to roll back its latest update in privacy policy. This time, the Ministry has also warned of legal action if it does not get a satisfactory reply by May 25.

Key Features of the Privacy Policy:

Information Sharing with Third-Party Services: When users rely on third-party services or other Facebook Company Products that are integrated with our Services, those third-party services may receive information about what you or others share with them.

Hardware Information: WhatsApp collects information from devices such as battery level, signal strength, app version, browser information, mobile network, connection information (including phone number, mobile operator or ISP) among others.

Deleting the Account: If someone only deletes the WhatsApp app from their device without using the in-app delete my account feature, then that user’s information will remain stored with the platform.

Data Storage: WhatsApp mentions that it uses Facebook’s global infrastructure and data centers including those in the United States to store user data. It also states that the data in some cases will be transferred to the United States or other parts where Facebook’s affiliate companies are based.

Location: Even if a user does not use their location-relation features, Whatsapp collects IP addresses and other information like phone number area codes to estimate your general location (city, country).

Payment Services: WhatsApp says that if anyone uses their payments services they will process additional information about you, including payment account and transaction information.

Why is the policy being criticised?

The Ministry has reiterated that the changes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy and the manner of introducing them undermine the sacrosanct values of informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users.

  • The new Whatsapp policy contradicts the recommendations of the Srikrishna Committee report, which forms the basis of the Data Protection Bill 2019.
  • The principle of Data Localisation, which aims to put curbs on the transfer of personal data outside the country, may come in conflict with WhatsApp’s new privacy policy.
  • With the updated privacy policy, WhatsApp can now share one’s metadata, essentially everything beyond the conversation’s actual text.
  • If users disagree with the messaging platform’s updated privacy policy, they will have to quit WhatsApp when the new terms of service are set to come into effect.

What’s the issue with WhatsApp’s new update to Privacy Policy?

The issue with WhatsApp’s privacy policy update came into public notice first in February 2021, when users complained and flagged some “privacy concerns” with the messaging app, after its parent company Facebook had pushed some privacy updates into WhatsApp that would allow Facebook more access to personal data of WhatsApp users, and which will ultimately enable Facebook to earn more revenue through its subsidiary. The updated policy terms were first announced by WhatsApp via in-app notification, asking users to agree to those by February 8 or lose access to their accounts. This was dubbed as “forcing” the users to comply with WhatsApp in order to keep using the app. Soon protests and online campaigns followed, where both users and privacy activists were seen voicing their opinion against WhatsApp. Due to this WhatsApp came with clarification and on January 15 announced that it was delaying the implementation of the changes to May 15. Now, once again WhatsApp is seen moving in the same way, where a user would need to comply with the privacy changes otherwise they would slowly be locked from using some features of the app and if they don’t accept the privacy rules at all, they’ll end up losing access to their accounts eventually. 

Government’s stance on the matter:

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has been actively involved in the matter ever since the issue came into the public sphere, early this year. The IT ministry had taken a firm stand before the Delhi High Court in March 2021, where through an affidavit it had said that WhatsApp must be barred from rolling out its new privacy policy as it violated several existing IT rules. Moreover, the IT Ministry had written a letter to WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart, in January, raising its concerns about the rollout of the changes in the privacy policy of the app. According to a report published in IndianExpress, a part of the letter to Will Cathcart read- “ This approach has the potential to infringe on core values of data privacy, user choice and autonomy of Indian users. Given the huge user base of WhatsApp and Facebook in India, the consolidation of this sensitive information also exposes a very large segment of Indian citizens to greater information security risk and vulnerabilities creating a potential honeypot of information”. 

Further, the Ministry had also directed the company to withdraw its policy update immediately, and we saw WhatsApp moving the update to May 15, where once again the MeiTY has clarified to WhatsApp that it’ll have to either comply with the Indian Government’s standards related to data privacy or it may get ready to face legal challenges from the government. According to a report, the IT Ministry’s latest notice to WhatsApp read- “As you are doubtlessly aware, many Indian citizens depend on WhatsApp to communicate in everyday life. It is not just problematic, but also irresponsible, for WhatsApp to leverage this position to impose unfair terms and conditions on Indian users, particularly those that discriminate against Indian users vis- -vis users in Europe.”

 It is clear the government is in no mood to allow WhatsApp to carry on with rolling out its privacy policy against the will of its users in India. It is important to note here that the upcoming data protection laws in India could be used in legally binding facebook to comply with government’s norms related to data privacy and localization, otherwise, it could lead to a battle between the Tech Giant and the GoI in Court.

WhatsApp’s statement on the issue:

Reacting to the issue, Whatsapp’s spokesperson released a statement on Wednesday which read- “Our goal is to provide information about new options we are building that people will have, to message a business on WhatsApp, in the future. While the majority of users who have received the new terms of service have accepted them, we appreciate some people haven’t had the chance to do so yet. No accounts were deleted on May 15 because of this update and no one in India lost the functionality of WhatsApp either. We will follow up with reminders to people over the next several weeks. We’re grateful for the important role WhatsApp plays in people’s lives and we’ll take every opportunity to explain how we protect people’s personal messages and private information.”

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