IFF files independent expert's submission before Madras HC on PIL relating to encryption and traceability

Highlights

  • Hearing adjourned: In light of the Supreme Court's direction that no effective order can be passed by the Madras High Court till Facebook's transfer petition is heard, the High Court adjourned the hearing in the PILs filed by Antony Clement Rubin and Janani Krishnamurthy till 19 September 2019.
  • Independent expert submission by IFF: ┬áIFF has filed an independent expert submission by Dr. Manoj Prabhakaran (Professor of Computer Science at IIT Bombay) which highlights the risks and long term ineffectiveness of Dr. Kamakoti's proposal to introduce traceability on encrypted platforms.

What happened before the Madras High Court?

After the closely watched hearing of Facebook's transfer petition before the Supreme Court (read more about it here), the PILs filed by Antony Clement Rubin and Janani Krishnamurthy were listed for hearing on 21.08.2019 before the Madras High Court. Earlier at the Supreme Court, a division bench of Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Aniruddha Bose had refused to stay proceedings before the High Court but they also directed the High Court to not pass any effective orders. In light of this, at today's hearing, the High Court could have either adjourned the matter till the transfer petition was decided by the Supreme Court or it could have continued with the hearings. The High Court decided to adopt the former approach and adjourned the matter till 19.09.2019 after charged arguments by senior advocates representing Facebook and the State of Tamil Nadu.

While adjourning the hearing, the High Court clarified that it was no longer considering the original prayer to link Aadhaar with social media accounts, and instead, its focus was now on improving coordination between law enforcement agencies and social media companies. Despite the adjournment, the case before the High Court is at a crucial stage. At the last hearing on 24 July, the High Court had directed Dr. V Kamakoti, who is a Professor at IIT Madras to submit a technical report on methods to trace originator information on WhatsApp. Dr. Kamakoti submitted his report on 31 July in which he has proposed two methods to identify the originator of a WhatsApp message. In our previous submission to the High Court, we had highlighted the impact of Dr. Kamakoti's proposal on the fundamental right to privacy, particularly for whistleblowers, activists, journalists, abuse survivors and other individuals belonging to marginalized groups who are at highest risk of violence and harassment if their identity was disclosed.

Expert submission by Dr. Manoj Prabhakaran

We also had certain concerns about the technical aspects of Dr. Kamakoti's proposal and these were the main focus of our submission filed yesterday. We had reached out to Dr. Manoj Prabhakaran who is a Professor at IIT Bombay specializing in cryptography to provide an independent expert analysis of Dr. Kamakoti's proposal. We are extremely grateful to Dr. Prabhakaran for taking time out to evaluate the technical effectiveness of the proposal and his report was submit to the High Court as a part of IFF's affidavit. In his report, Dr. Prabhakaran has noted that in its existing form, the proposal suggested by Dr. Kamakoti is vulnerable to falsification of originator information by bad actors to frame an innocent person for sending an illegal message. Dr. Prabhakaran has suggested use of digital signatures to mitigate the risk of spoofing but his analysis ultimately concludes that even with these modifications, the long term effectiveness of the proposal is very limited.

Dr. Prabhakaran's report was submitted in addition to IFF's earlier reply and our latest affidavit which clarifies our organizational stance that any attempts to weaken encryption through backdoors or key escrow systems would undermine the privacy and security of all users. All of this has only been possible because of the fantastic work done by our counsels, Suhrith Parthasarthy and Surasika Parthasarthy, who have been representing us before the Madras High Court and ensuring that fundamental rights of Indian internet users are given due consideration during these hearings.

Important Links
1. Scanned copy of affidavit dated 20.08.2019 filed by IFF (link)
2. Scanned copy of Dr. Manoj Prabhakaran's report (link)

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