Fact-check: Is govt monitoring calls and social media to track political and religious content?

On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, barring essential services, as a preventive measure to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in India. However, misinformation related to COVID-19 is rampant.

A WhatsApp message has gone viral. It claims that the Government of India is monitoring all forms of online and telephonic communications and asked people to not forward messages related to politics or religion.

The text reads, “From tomorrow onwards there are new communication regulations. All calls are recorded. All phone call recordings saved. WhatsApp is monitored. Twitter is monitored. Facebook is monitored All social media and forums are monitored. Inform those who do not know. Your devices are connected to ministry systems. Take care not to send unnecessary messages. Inform your children, Relatives and friends about this to take care. Don’t forward any posts or videos etc., you receive regarding politics/present situation about Government/PM etc.​​ Police have put out a notification termed ..Cyber Crime … and action will be taken…just don’t delete … Inform your friends & others too. Writing or forwarding any msg on any political & religious debate is an offence now….arrest without warrant… This is very serious, plz let it be known to all our groups and individual members as group admin can b in deep trouble. Take care not to send unnecessary messages. Inform everyone about this to take care. Please share it; it’s very much true. Groups please be careful.”

Alt News has received several requests to fact-check these messages on WhatsApp (+91 76000 11160) and on our official Android application.

False claim

On March 24, the Press Information Bureau debunked this message via Twitter. “No such thing is being done by the Government,” reads the tweet.

It is important to keep in mind that WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption (E2EE) which means “only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what’s sent, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp.” E2EE conversations remain private unless the receiver shares screenshots of the conversation or if there is a breach in the security of the communication devices.

Facebook Messenger doesn’t have end-to-end encryption enabled by default. But it has a feature called ‘secret conversation‘ which is end-to-end encrypted. Similarly, Twitter does not have end-to-end encryption for its direct messages. As per a 2018 Tech Crunch report, Twitter was testing a feature similar to Facebook’s secret conversation.

It’s important to note that not all E2EE messaging applications are equal. Tom’s Guide, an audience supported tech blog, has listed various E2EE apps available for Android or iOS. A 2019 report by Engadget, a US-based tech news website, compared the security offered by Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal. According to this report, Signal has the highest standard of security out of the four apps.

Thus, the WhatsApp forward promotes false claims. Earlier, an audio clip of a phone conversation was viral, falsely claiming that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended a lockdown in India till June 15.

Expert opinion

In order to understand social media surveillance by the government, Alt News reached out to Kushal Das, a developer of SecureDrop at Freedom of the Press Foundation, via Signal messenger. SecureDrop is a free software platform for secure communication between journalists and sources.

Before you read responses given by Das to our questions, we recommend you watch this short video by AJ+ about online surveillance.

Can you explain how social media platforms are monitored by the government?

Das: “Indian government records everything at internet service provider (ISP) level. Additionally, the government installs hardware on the ISP level. They can see/track who is visiting which sites, and the different social media platform posts. So when they need the data, all they have to do is a send formal notice to these companies to get access to your private chats. Even though WhatsApp chats are end-to-end encrypted, the government can still ask the company and find out who is talking with whom. They can also arrest a person and force them to unlock their phone. Similarly, they can create social graphs by identifying who is following whom, and the frequency of the chats.”

You said that the claim in viral text, “Your devices are connected to ministry systems” is false. So how do governments, across the world, get personal data of individuals?

Das: “Generally, your devices don’t get attacked directly unless you are under full-scale surveillance. Think about all the browsing you do, the government can see them live in their systems (in most cases not the actual data, but the metadata, like which sites etc). As I mentioned earlier, all the government has to do is ask for actual data (say your emails, chats on FB) from the company. By the way, the government also has a system to auto transcribe the calls and store the data for a much longer period if they want.”

How secure are SMS and phone calls via cellular service?

Das: “By law, all communication over the air in India is not encrypted. This has been done to make sure that the government can monitor all the communication. This means SMS and normal phone calls are not secure from the criminals too. For instance, OTPs send to our phones can be intercepted.”

What does this mean for the privacy of an individual?

Das: “Individual privacy is in great danger as we don’t have any laws to protect this information. All metadata can be used to create profiles of individuals which they can predict and monitor much more efficiently. This destroys any personal freedom we have.”

What can we do to protect our online privacy?

Das: “We know that the government is capable of recording all phone calls. But are they doing it? That we don’t know. But we know for sure that they are storing all call logs and other metadata. That is good enough to create new target lists so that they can monitor individuals completely.”

People can start by these steps to make themselves more secure – move all phone calls/messages to Signal messenger. This app does not store similar level of metadata (unlike WhatsApp) and the phone calls cannot be intercepted easily. As for secure web browsing, people can start using Tor Browser more frequently, so that their internet usage stays more private to them.”

Viral in Hindi and Gujarati too

The viral text has been widely circulated by Hindi and Gujarati users as well.

The viral text in Gujarati reads, “આવતીકાલથી નવા સંચારના નિયમો લાગુ કરવામાં આવશે અમદાવાદ પોલીસ 1. બધા કોલ રેકોર્ડિંગ્સ હશે. 2. બધી જ કોલ રેકોર્ડિંગ્સ સાચવવામાં આવશે. 3. વોટ્સએપ, ફેસબુક, ટ્રિટર અને બધા સોશિયલ મીડિયા પર નજર રાખવામાં આવશે. 4. જે લોકો જાણતા નથી તે બધાને જાણ કરો. 5. તમારા ઉપકરણ મંત્રાલય સિસ્ટમ્સ સાથે કનેક્ટ થશે. 6. કોઈને ખોટો સંદેશ ન મોકલવા પર ધ્યાન આપો. 7. તમારા બાળકો, ભાઈઓ, સંબંધીઓ, મિત્રો, પરિચિતોને, દરેકને જાણ કરો કે તમારે તેમની સંભાળ લેવી જોઈએ અને સોશિયલ સાઇટ્સને ભાગ્યે જ ચલાવવી જોઈએ. 8. કોઈપણ પોસ્ટ કે વિડીયો… વગેરે જેને તમે રાજકારણ અથવા વર્તમાન પરિસ્થિતિ પર સરકાર અથવા વડા પ્રધાનની સામે મેળવો છો. મોકલો નહીં. 9. અત્યારે કોઈપણ રાજકીય કે ધાર્મિક મુદ્દે સંદેશ લખવો કે મોકલવો એ ગુનો છે. આવું કરવાથી વોરંટ વિના ધરપકડ થઈ શકે છે. 10. પોલિસ પ્રથમ નોટિફિકેશને દૂર કરશે …. ત્યારબાદ સાયબર ક્રાઈમ … ત્યારબાદ કાર્યવાહી કરવામાં આવશે. તે ખૂબ ગંભીર છે 11. બધા જ ગૃપના સભ્યો, સંચાલકો, … કૃપા કરીને આ વિષય પર વિચાર કરો. 12. કોઈ ખોટો સંદેશ ને મોકલવાની કાળજી રાખો. અને દરેકને જાણ કરો અને આ વિષયની સંભાળ રાખો. 13. કૃપા કરીને આને શેર કરો.. આભાર…”

While the one in Hindi is as follows: “कल से नये communication नियम लागू होने वाले है :1.सभी call recording होंगे 2.सभी call recording saved होंगे 3.Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, और सभी Social media सभी monitored होंगे 4.जो ये नहीं जानते उन सभी को इत्तला (inform) कर दीजिये 5.आपकी Devices को मन्त्रालय systems से जोड़ दिया जायेगा 6,ध्यान दीजिये कोई भी गलत message किसी को भी मत भेजिये 7.अपने बच्चों, भाइयों, रिश्तेदारो, दोस्तों,परिचितो,सभी को इत्तला (inform) कर दो कि इन सबसे ध्यान रखे और social sites को संयम से चलाये 8.कोई post या video..आदि जो आप recieve करते हो राजनीति या वर्तमान स्थिति पर सरकार या प्रधानमंत्री के खिलाफ उसे Send मत करो 9.इस समय किसी राजनीतिक या धार्मिक मुद्दे पर कोई Message लिखना या भेजना अपराध है ……ऐसा करने पर बिना वारंट के गिरफ़्तारी हो सकती है। 10.Police एक नोटिफ़िकेशन निकालेगी ….फ़िर Cyber अपराध… फ़िर action लिया जायेगा 11.यह बहुत ही गम्भीर है please आप सभी, group members, admins ,…इस विषय पर गहराई से सोचिये 12.ध्यान रखिये कोई गलत Message मत भेजिये और सभी को इत्तला (inform) करिये और इस विषय पर ध्यान रखे 13.Please इसे share कीजिये… यह सच है Groups ज्यादा सतर्क व साब्धान रहे।”

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