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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Such a careless attitude to our privacy won’t do

The government should withdraw its proposal to let employers send their staff salary-credit notices via WhatsApp. It reveals a disposition that can muddy perceptions of labour reforms

It is incomprehensible why India should seek to grant WhatsApp official legitimacy as a medium to convey confidential information at a time when the latest update of its usage terms and privacy policy has created a global furore. In its draft orders on salary notifications for the country’s manufacturing, services and mining sectors, the Union labour ministry has specifically named this Facebook-owned online messaging service as an example of social media platforms that could be used by employers to intimate employees of wage transfers to their bank accounts. Emails, SMS intimations and old-fashioned pay slips are the other options proposed for this. The ministry’s orders are not final, but its mention of WhatsApp suggests a bias for ease-of-communication over the interests of workers, especially on the privacy front. It may well have been a bureaucratic oversight, but such carelessness does little for the ministry’s image as a guardian of worker welfare. These changes are part of our wide-ranging labour reforms, the stated aim of which is to turn India’s job market far more dynamic than it is, and given how easily our new measures to ease layoffs can be mistaken as one-sided, the government should take special care to be unbiased. Dropping social media from that list would help.

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, due to take effect on 8 February, would allow the app to access, store and share with Facebook and its partners a wide gamut of personal data related to commercial activity. This would be in addition to various forms of meta-data on the app-usage patterns of users that are shared anyway for purposes of analytics. Thanks to the renewed public scrutiny that the app’s privacy armour has attracted, cracks have been pointed out by security analysts even in its encryption system for messages, with its cloud backups seen as vulnerable to prying eyes. The app’s near-ubiquity among online Indians and its convenience are not in doubt. Indeed, these explain the success of its e-payment service, as also its claimed count of about 50 million business accounts on its platform. It is also true that WhatsApp could use all the information it obtains to provide innovative and well-aimed add-on financial services. But it is important all the same that people are not forced to participate in this. The European Union has data rules by which users can easily opt out of data-sharing with Facebook, but most other jurisdictions do not yet have adequate protections in place. As the alarm over WhatsApp’s revised policy has grown, some Indian companies have issued advisories asking employees not to share sensitive information on WhatsApp. Anecdotal accounts of an exodus from it are difficult to verify, but there has evidently been a rush in favour of Signal, an alternative network. On Sunday, Signal was the country’s most downloaded app available at Google Play Store, having leapt ahead of more than 200 other apps since the start of 2021. It was in such hot demand that its servers briefly got overwhelmed and its verification codes delayed.

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Should salary-credit figures be conveyed via WhatsApp, employees would justifiably worry about its secrecy. It is one thing for social media to enable informal chats, quite another for any government to endorse its official use for information that people would not want divulged. Such an offhand disposition towards the privacy of our citizens could stymie other data initiatives. The government should pay more attention to this vital concern as it prepares to enact a data security law.

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