Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is studying the possibility of bringing instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Skype, Signal and Telegram under the ambit of “lawful interception”.

The government want such platforms to provide access to messages, calls, and their logs to law-enforcement agencies to aid them with investigations.

Why is TRAI looking at lawful interception of online messaging apps?

  1. Mobile companies have raised concerns over services such as WhatsApp and Skype, causing loss of revenues by offering free messaging and call services.
  1. The telecom sector watchdog has been carrying out consultations to build a regulatory framework for over-the-top service providers (OTTs) — or platforms that use the infrastructure of traditional telecom companies like the Internet to offer their services. OTTs do not fall under the licensing regime prescribed by The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and effectively operate without any regulatory framework.

While telecom players are subjected to lawful interception as per the telegraph law, OTT platforms, by virtue of not being licensed, are currently not subject to interception by law-enforcement agencies.

How will the regulator proceed with the proposal now?
TRAI will submit its views to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), which will decide on the next course of action. Currently, the regulator is learnt to be studying global practices as far as lawful interception on online platforms is concerned.

Under which laws are telecom firms currently subject to lawful interception?
The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 states that on the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety, the central government or a state government can take temporary possession — for as long as the public emergency exists or the interest of the public safety requires the taking of such action — of any telegraph established, maintained or worked by any person licensed under the Act.

The act also mandates telecom companies to provide access to messages, calls, and logs of these in case a court order or a warrant is issued. However, the government, while clear on demanding access to message logs for law-enforcement purposes, is not relying on The Telegraph Act to meet this objective. Instead, it wants the platforms to come up with a solution to enable traceability.

So, are messages sent and received on these platforms not traceable?
Apps such as WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, etc. claim to provide end-to-end encryption of their messages. This has caused some uncertainty among the authorities on how they can seek access to messages.

What is whatsapp policy to share messages with law agencies?

On the FAQ page on its website, WhatsApp states: “We will search for and disclose information that is specified with particularity in an appropriate form of legal process and which we are reasonably able to locate and retrieve. We do not retain data for law-enforcement purposes unless we receive a valid preservation request before a user has deleted that content from our service.”

It also says that in the ordinary course, WhatsApp does not store messages once they are delivered. “Undelivered messages are deleted from our servers after 30 days.

What is whatsapp privacy policy?
As stated in the WhatsApp Privacy Policy, we may collect, use, preserve, and share user information if we have a good-faith belief that it is reasonably necessary to (a) keep our users safe, (b) detect, investigate, and prevent illegal activity, (c) respond to legal process, or to government requests, (d) enforce our Terms and policies,” it says. “We also offer end-to-end encryption for our services, which is always activated. End-to-end encryption means that messages are encrypted to protect against WhatsApp and third parties from reading them.”

And what is the situation elsewhere?
Currently, there is no jurisdiction anywhere in which messaging apps have been known to provide access to their messages. However, pressure on such services to provide access for law-enforcement purposes has been rising everywhere.

In India, Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has repeatedly stressed the need to be able to trace messages to prevent serious crimes. While the Indian government has conceded that encrypted messages may not be accessible, it has asked the platforms to provide origin of messages that could possibly incite violence or other mischievous acts.

Source: The Indian Express

Relevant for: GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Internal Security