India wants WhatsApp to withdraw privacy policy update as it ‘takes away choice from users’

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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India’s technology ministry has asked Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp to withdraw the changes to its privacy policy announced earlier this month, saying the new terms take away choice from Indian users.

The government has written to WhatsApp head Will Cathcart asking him to “respect the informational privacy and data security of Indian users” and withdraw the latest terms and privacy policy in India proposed by the messaging service for users.

On January 4, WhatsApp updated its privacy policy to allow it to share user data with its parent company Facebook and other group firms. The data includes location and phone number. The move has triggered a backlash across the world and led to a surge in the downloading of alternative messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram. India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with 400 million users. Following global objection WhatsApp had informed its decision to delay the policy update to May.

More details

The government has sent a questionnaire to WhatsApp seeking more details about its data-sharing protocols and business practices. It has sought the exact categories of data that the application collects from Indian users, details of the permissions and user consent sought by and utility of each of these with respect to the functioning and specific service provided. The service has been asked whether it profiles users based on their use of the application.

The government has also sought details of the difference between WhatsApp’s privacy policies in India and other countries along with details of its data security, information security, cyber-security, privacy, and encryption policies.

WhatsApp has maintained its privacy policy update “does not affect the privacy of your messages with your friends and family in any way” and was only related to interactions with businesses. It has said the company will not have access to messages, calls, or call logs.

The government has highlighted the latest policy will lead to the collection of “a vast amount of highly invasive and granular metadata.”

“With this, any meaningful distinction between WhatsApp and Facebook companies will cease to exist. 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 security risks and vulnerabilities creating a honeypot of information,” a person familiar with the matter said, citing the contents of the letter to the WhatsApp chief.

India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook officials on January 21 amid privacy concerns about WhatsApp.