Zaheer Merchant – Indonesia's government has been listening in on people's private chats in WhatsApp groups, the South China Morning Post reports.
It says Rickynaldo Chairul, head of the cybercrime unit of the Indonesian national police, told reporters last week that the police decided to carry out a "cyber patrol" in WhatsApp groups as "many people think spreading hoaxes on WhatsApp is safer than on social media".
WhatsApp removed 61,000 accounts in the country in May but gave no reason for doing so, the report said. A week later, nine people were killed in the riots of May 21 and 22. The riots began as a protest over Indonesia's disputed election result, which is still playing out in the country's constitutional court.
On May 22, when President Joko Widodo was declared the winner of April's election, Indonesia had introduced curbs on social media to prevent the spread of hoaxes. The restrictions were lifted three days later.
No data protection law
The report quoted Chairul as saying that the police broke no laws by monitoring people's private chats.
While a 2008 law does give the government the authority to prevent the spread of unlawful online content, Indonesia lacks regulations on digital wiretapping and data protection, and this is why the government's decision to monitor private chat groups is so troubling, the report says, citing legal experts.However, the government seems to be sticking to its guns. It quotes Widodo's chief of staff as saying that the cyber patrol "has to be done" to "try to reduce the tension".
But privacy experts cited in the report say such cyber patrols violate people's expectations of privacy, and that unauthorised attempts to monitor online chats lower trust in the state and hurt foreign investment.
Imposing curbs on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube cost Indonesia more than $81 million a day, according to a calculation tool provided by Access Now.
Like India and others, Indonesia could legalise policing of messaging apps
Indonesia's communications minister said last week he would propose that social media and messaging platforms make it mandatory for users to register their phone numbers to help the authorities track illicit content and make prosecutions easier, the SCMP report says. Here's how India, Australia and Singapore are already clamping down on WhatsApp.
Last week, the government asked WhatsApp to "fingerprint" messages to ensure that they are traceable. Unnamed senior officials said that the platform should be able to trace the origin of a message and know how many times it has been read and forwarded, but insisted that "we don't want to read the messages".
They said it was "not acceptable that no one can trace any messages". The government had first demanded traceability of WhatsApp messages last year, after misinformation and rumours about child kidnappings on the platform led to a series of lynchings across India.
Earlier this month, WhatsApp had told the Madras High Court that its end-to-end encryption software made it impossible to track down the original sender of a message, including forwarded messages. WhatsApp made this submission during a case that is examining ways in which cybercrime might be curbed with the assistance of social media companies. The court had asked if was possible to trace the original sender of a message that sought to spread misinformation.
Australia: Bill to sneak a peak at encrypted messages
In December, the lower house of the Australian parliament passed a bill through which security agencies could compel technology companies to grant access to encrypted messages. Through 'The Telecommunications (Assistance and Access) Act', a company could be fined $7.3 million if it fails to hand over the data linked to suspected illegal activities, while individuals could face a prison sentence. The list of activities that law enforcement can ask companies to do include:
- Removing more than one form of electronic protection
- Giving technical information
- Helping them access services and equipment
- Installation and modification software and technology, eg: an Apple Home or Amazon Alexa modified to record audio continuously
- Concealing these changes from the public
Singapore: controversial fake news law
In April, Singapore enacted a controversial fake news law that enables the police to monitor social media and private chat groups. The law applies to media outlets and online platforms and gives direct censorship powers to executive authorities without requirement for prior judicial approval. It also contains vague and broad language in a number of provisions detailing the kind of communications that will attract penalties.