Whatsapp, the Facebook-owned social media platform, faces the heat with the government announcing in Parliament its desire to conduct an audit of its security features. The statement, made by Union Minister for Communications, Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad, follows an uproar over revelations that spyware manufactured by an Israeli firm was installed in the instant messenger using ‘vulnerabilities’ in its system to snoop on Indians, mostly journalists and human rights activists. The government has since faced charges of illegal espionage on its own citizens, which the minister refuted. Earlier, a CBI probe was ordered into the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica controversy after it was revealed that the personal data of Indian citizens had been used without consent to influence voters. The mining of personal data was also believed to have led to the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election.
Social media platforms evolve. Orkut was replaced by Facebook because of superior features, and WhatsApp overtook SMS for communication. Instagram has changed the way we look at the world. But the government concern over misuse is evident, with the Press Information Bureau (PIB) setting up a fact-checking unit to verify news. I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar described fake news as more dangerous than paid news and Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu urged the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association to frame a mechanism to check it. But as the government mulls regulating social media — objectivity and accuracy its main concerns — it should ensure that the effect is corrective.
While an audit of WhatsApp’s security features is welcome, caution should mark action because of the way it has become an integral part of our lives. It is common for organisations and people to form groups to interact instantly on a common cyber platform. Regulatory mechanisms are welcome to take care of national, business and individual sensitivities, but these should not be used by the government for snooping. On its part, WhatsApp should strive to ensure secrecy of its data.