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Govt asks WhatsApp to scrap update: ‘Invasive… for Indian users’

The updated policy terms were first announced by WhatsApp via an in-app notification, asking users to agree to those by February 8 or lose access to their accounts.

The updated policy terms were first announced by WhatsApp via an in-app notification, asking users to agree to those by February 8 or lose access to their accounts.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on Tuesday wrote to Will Cathcart, the global Chief Executive Officer of WhatsApp, asking him to withdraw the latest privacy and policy update on the instant messaging platform, which, it said, enabled WhatsApp and other Facebook companies “to make invasive and precise inferences about users”.

Collection and sharing of sensitive data such as the time, frequency and duration of interactions, group names or payments and transaction data with Facebook companies will create an ecosystem where any distinction between WhatsApp and other companies of the Facebook group will cease to exist, the IT ministry said.

“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,” the IT ministry said in the letter to Cathcart.

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The updated policy terms were first announced by WhatsApp via an in-app notification, asking users to agree to those by February 8 or lose access to their accounts. Following protests by both users and privacy activists, WhatsApp had on January 15 announced that it was delaying the implementation of the changes to May 15.

Read |What data does WhatsApp collect about you? We asked for account information, here’s what we got

The letter to Cathcart also took umbrage at WhatsApp’s accept-the-terms-or-leave-the-platform stance for users in India when the same was not applicable to its European users. Such discriminatory treatment, the ministry said, “betrays a lack of respect for the rights and interests” of Indian users who formed a substantial portion of its global user base and takes away “any meaningful choice” from them.

“The Government of India is also concerned with the way in which Indian users have been made subject to these changes. By not providing Indian users with the ability to opt out of this data sharing with other Facebook companies, WhatsApp is treating users with an all-or-nothing approach”, the letter said.

With over 400 million users, India is one of the biggest markets for WhatsApp. As of July 2020, the company had more than 50 million WhatsApp Business users globally, of which over 15 million used the service in India every month.

Explained |Why is WhatsApp giving users more time to accept its privacy policy?

Following WhatsApp’s announcement that it would update its privacy policy, Signal became one of the top downloaded apps on Android and Apple platforms in India last week. Just over the last fortnight, Signal saw nearly 23 lakh downloads, compared to 17 lakh downloads for WhatsApp.

In its update to the terms of service, WhatsApp had said that the new rules would not apply to users in the European Union, who were covered by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR allows users to know which part of their data is being harvested by companies and in what specific ways.

Several privacy policy experts, while pointing out that the European Union has a very strict data protection law, have called for urgent and prompt implementation of the data protection Bill that has been in the works in India for some time now.

While taking note of this, the letter said that WhatsApp’s change in privacy policies for Indian users, at a time when Parliament was deliberating the new Personal Data Protection bill, “puts the cart before the horse”.

The IT ministry has also sent a set of 14 questions to Cathcart, which relate to the proposed policy update. These questions seek details on the exact categories of data that WhatsApp collects in India, the details of permissions and consents required by the platform, and the nature of profiling of Indian users, if any, being done by WhatsApp.

Information about the storage and transmission of the data of Indian users and whether the data was being mirrored on any other servers outside India has also been sought by the ministry through the letter.

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