Wel­come to an­other What­sApp elec­tion

The mes­sag­ing ser­vice’s ar­chi­tec­ture lends it­self per­fectly to any­one who wants to skirt elec­tion laws. That’s al­ready hap­pen­ing

The Hindu Business Line - - THINK - RAJ KA­MAL RAO

Wel­come to the In­dian elec­tions of 2019, where the the out­come will largely be de­cided on What­sApp. TV, the print me­dia, Face­book, Twit­ter and ra­dio all pale in com­par­i­son to the power that the mes­sag­ing app wields. Out­side the purview of the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, the world’s big­gest democ­racy will rely on a bril­liant smart­phone app to elect its next leader.

What­sApp mes­sages ar­gu­ing for or against the PM bom­bard phones mul­ti­ple times each day. Some clips are clearly pro­fes­sion­ally made in­di­cat­ing that po­lit­i­cal par­ties are be­hind their cre­ation. Oth­ers are clev­erly sliced to con­vey mes­sages in lan­guage that the com­moner can un­der­stand.

Some clips are bla­tantly false. One showed the De­fence Min­is­ter pos­ing with a young woman in pilot gear who was pur­port­edly her daugh­ter. There were sub­se­quent mes­sages which clar­i­fied that this as­so­ci­a­tion is fake but the im­pres­sion that the Min­is­ter’s daugh­ter too is so pa­tri­otic as to serve In­dia had al­ready been cir­cu­lated to mil­lions of phones. Cor­rec­tions rarely reg­is­ter in the hu­man brain, so the de­sired first im­pres­sion had al­ready been firmly planted.

Mod­ern elec­tions are about anonymity but this priv­i­lege is only ex­tended to the voter at the time of cast­ing a bal­lot. Un­til that point and ev­ery mo­ment af­ter­wards, each elec­tion is sup­posed to be a trans­par­ent ex­er­cise where all ac­tions are sub­ject to re­view and over­sight: dur­ing cam­paign­ing, funds raised and spent; sources be­hind the funds; their re­la­tion­ships to po­lit­i­cal par­ties and the can­di­dates; cam­paign mes­sag­ing and ad­ver­tise­ments — are all in­tended to be an open book for the pub­lic to scru­ti­nise.

Be­cause What­sApp is the main medium of elec­tion pro­pa­ganda this time, all the above rules of elec­tion gov­er­nance have been com­pletely thrown out of the win­dow. What­sApp was never cre­ated to be a But zero ac­count­abil­ity

tool to help in­flu­ence elec­tions but its ar­chi­tec­ture lends it­self per­fectly to any­one who wants to skirt elec­tion laws.

When What­sApp was built, its founders wanted to ex­ert no con­trol over its users what­so­ever. Part of the rea­son­ing for this de­cen­tralised ap­proach was that What­sApp did not want to be held legally li­able for the ac­tions of its users.

The app is sim­ply linked to a per­son’s mo­bile num­ber. If a per­son has mul­ti­ple mo­bile num­bers, the per­son can have mul­ti­ple What­sApp ac­counts. Ac­count set-up is not ver­i­fied other than to ver­ify if the num­ber can re­ceive a text mes­sage dur­ing first time set-up. What­sApp does not re­quire a user name or pass­word to use its app.

Neb­u­lous as ever

Af­ter­wards, What­sApp doesn’t as­cer­tain the num­ber’s va­lid­ity. If the num­ber is re­tired for­ever by the mo­bile phone com­pany for some rea­son, the user can still con­tinue to use What­sApp (us­ing WiFi or an­other SIM card). A user can move to a dif­fer­ent coun­try (even hos­tile to In­dia) and can con­tinue to use What­sApp with­out the app ever know­ing about it. In fact, What­sApp doesn’t even have to run on a mo­bile phone. It can run just as well on a tablet or a PC long af­ter the user no longer has ac­cess to the orig­i­nal mo­bile phone num­ber.

Nor does What­sApp know any­thing about the thou­sands of GBs of data which are dig­i­tally sent through its servers at warp speed ev­ery day. The com­pany doesn’t op­er­ate a cloud ser­vice to store the bil­lions of mes­sages which are pushed through its plat­form. Mes­sages and as­so­ci­ated me­dia re­side on users’ phones — and if users so de­sire, they can choose to backup their con­tent to an ex­ter­nal cloud ser­vice not op­er­ated by What­sApp, such as their Google Drive or iCloud ac­counts to which What­sApp has no ac­cess.

What­sApp’s de­sign is, there­fore, a night­mare to the watch­ful eyes of in­de­pen­dent elec­tion mon­i­tors. There’s zero ac­count­abil­ity be­cause the ori­gin of mes­sages is of­ten un­known or if a mes­sage’s con­tent is ac­cu­rate. Worse, mes­sages wrongly at­trib­uted to some­one can be pushed through by bad ac­tors. In short, any­thing — yes, any­thing — goes on What­sApp.

Twit­ter helped en­able Brexit to come about and pro­pel US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to vic­tory. Now an­other Sil­i­con val­ley firm has the power to in­flu­ence an­other ma­jor elec­tion. Tech­nol­ogy, it seems, has un­in­tended con­se­quences.

The writer is Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor, Rao Ad­vi­sors LLC, US

Power tool

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.