India government, Facebook spar over decryption laws at top court

India's flag is seen through a 3D printed Facebook logo in this illustration picture, April 8, 2019. (Reuters/ File Photo)
Updated 22 October 2019

India government, Facebook spar over decryption laws at top court

  • "They can't come into the country and say we will establish an non-decryptable system," Venugopal said, referring to big internet platforms
  • Facebook's lawyer told the court the company was not obliged to share users' data with the Indian government

NEW DELHI: India's government asked Facebook Inc on Tuesday to help it decrypt private messages on its network, citing national security requirements in a court hearing on privacy rights on social media platforms.
India's Attorney General K.K. Venugopal told the Supreme Court that it was the responsibility of social media companies to share data wherever there was a threat to national security.
"A terrorist cannot claim privacy," Venugopal said. "For Facebook and WhatsApp to say they cannot decrypt is not acceptable."
Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which has about 400 million users in India, allows groups of hundreds of users to exchange texts, photos and videos using end-to-end encryption, beyond the oversight of independent fact checkers or even the platform itself.
The government said in an affidavit it planned to frame new rules to govern social media "keeping in view the ever growing threats to individual rights and nation's integrity, sovereignty, and security."
"They can't come into the country and say we will establish an non-decryptable system," Venugopal said, referring to big internet platforms.
But Facebook's lawyer Mukul Rohtagi told the court the company was not obliged to share users' data with the Indian government.
The case went to the Supreme court after Facebook in August asked the top court to hear all cases concerning privacy and curbs on social media usage, local media reported.
WhatsApp has been trying to find ways to prevent its misuse, following concerns that the platform was being used to spread disinformation, but has said it will not dilute end-to-end encryption.
Rohtagi said local laws neither mandated companies to share data with government agencies, nor placed the onus of facilitating a process of decrypting messages on them.
"The rules say if I have the key, I could give the key. But I don't have the key myself," Rohtagi said, referring to Facebook or WhatsApp servers which are located outside of India.
The Supreme Court said it will now consolidate all pending cases on the issue from lower courts across the country and hear it beginning the last week of January.
Tushar Mehta, a lawyer for the government, said there was no intention to invade into personal lives of citizens, and India merely wanted to guard its citizens against extremism.
But Judge Deepak Gupta asked the government lawyers to explain why the onus of facilitating decryption should be on the social media companies. He said the law allows the government to seek help to decrypt, but does not suggest the companies do it for the government, he told Venugopal.
"Nobody prevents you from having your own system of decryption," Gupta said. 


A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.