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August 3, 2016 - Comments Off on CM Sindh Chooses Whatsapp: Is This A Good Idea?

CM Sindh Chooses Whatsapp: Is This A Good Idea?

A few days ago, the newly appointed Chief Minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah, created a Whatsapp group, with the express purpose of keeping an eye on the daily activities of members of the Sindh Assembly’s cabinet (who have been added to the group) and to stay up to date on their tasks.

At first glance, this is a fairly innocuous and useful decision by the Chief Minister - it appears to save time and money on the part of taxpayers; it is a more efficient and effective means of getting Sindh’s lawmakers to coordinate matters; default end-to-end encryption ensures that their conversations are protected. Pakistan’s government is not known for its adoption of new technology, contrary to oft-repeated announcements to the contrary. In light of that, would this not be a good move?

There are problems however, once we look more closely at the situation.

One issue, for instance, pertains to the backing up of Whatsapp conversations and media. While conversations themselves are encrypted, and assuming that members of the group are indeed aware that their conversations will be backed up, the backup formats used - depending on the device used - lead to their data being exposed. iCloud (for Whatsapp on iPhone) and Google Drive (for Android users) can allow Whatsapp conversations to be accessed in plain text format, as outlined here. Usage of Web Whatsapp - a feature that lets you read and type Whatsapp messages through a desktop or laptop browser - furthermore, ensures that messages shared can be read if the computer itself is available to anyone with access.

Access to information is a key factor here, especially in regards to who should or should have it. People that have shared documents et al in the group and have downloaded them to their devices will still keep them on said devices if they leave the group or indeed the government, whether by choice or by dismissal.

Public access to information is also impacted by total reliance on closed communication solutions like Whatsapp. The minutes of physical meetings held by government departments, can be accessed by the public if post on their respective websites under the proactive disclosure - virtual group meetings cannot be, unless a member of a Whatsapp group decides to provide the information themselves.

The Chief Minister is not the only lawmaker to utilise Whatsapp or other forms of messaging apps; it is more than likely that Whatsapp, Blackberry Messenger, Skype etc are being used, whether for official communications or for personal matters. What must be taken into account, by lawmakers is that if they support legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill - which has the potential to severely impact the privacy and freedom of expression rights of millions of inhabitants of Pakistan - they too run the risk of their privacy being under attack. Decades of harsh military rule have over the years resulted in the imprisonment of activists and politicians in the past, who are now respected members of the government, in part because of their freedom of expression and their right to privacy being violated.

Low-cost smartphones, fairly affordable data and internet packages, and open-source mobile operating systems in the form of Android have ensured that more people in Pakistan and across the globe have access to the internet and digital services than even a decade ago. As of May 2016, there are more than 133 million mobile subscribers in Pakistan. In this context, it is important for lawmakers to embrace newer technologies, in order to not just communicate more effectively with the public, but to also ensure that there is greater transparency of governmental procedure, and greater appreciation for the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

This post was written by Hamza Irshad & Adnan Ahmad

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Blog

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