The Short-lived Adventure of India’s Encryption Policy

This article was originally written for the Berkeley Information Privacy Law Association, an inter-disciplinary group of privacy researchers at UC Berkeley.

During his visit to Silicon Valley last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government was “giving the highest importance to data privacy and security, intellectual property rights and cyber security”. But a proposed national encryption policy circulated only last week would have achieved the opposite effect.

The policy was comically short-lived. After its poorly-drafted provisions invited ridicule, it was swiftly withdrawn. But the government has promised to return with a fresh attempt to regulate encryption soon. The incident highlights the worrying assault on communications privacy and free speech in India, a concern compounded by the enormous scale of the telecommunications and Internet market.

Even with only around 26 percent of its population online, India is already the world’s second-largest Internet user, recently overtaking the United States. The number of Internet users in India is set to grow exponentially, spurred by ambitious governmental schemes to build a ‘Digital India’ and a country-wide fiber-optic backbone. There will be a corresponding increase in the use of the Internet for communicating and conducting commerce.

Encryption on the Internet

Encryption protects the security of Internet users from invasions of privacy, theft of data, and other attacks. By applying an algorithmic cipher (key), ordinary data (plaintext) is encoded into an unintelligible form (ciphertext), which is decrypted using the key. The ciphertext can be intercepted but will remain unintelligible without the key. The key is secret.

There are several methods of encryption. SSL/TLS, a family of encryption protocols, is commonly used by major websites. But while some companies encrypt sensitive data, such as passwords and financial information, during its transit through the Internet, most data at rest on servers is largely unencrypted. For instance, email providers regularly store plaintext messages on their servers. As a result, governments simply demand and receive backdoor access to information directly from the companies that provide these services.

On the other hand, proper end-to-end encryption — full encryption from the sender to recipient, where the service provider simply passes on the ciphertext without storing it, and deletes the metadata — will defeat backdoors and protect privacy, but may not be profitable. End-to-end encryption alarms the surveillance establishment, which is why British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to ban it, and many in the US government want Silicon Valley companies to stop using it.

Communications privacy

Instead of relying on a company to secure communications, the surest way to achieve end-to-end encryption is for the sender to encrypt the message before it leaves her computer. Since only the sender and intended recipient have the key, even if the data is intercepted in transit or obtained through a backdoor, only the ciphertext will be visible.

For almost all of human history, encryption relied on a single shared key; that is, both the sender and recipient used a pre-determined key. But, like all secrets, the more who know it, the less secure the key becomes. From the 1970s onwards, revolutionary advances in cryptography enabled the generation of a pair of dissimilar keys, one public and one private, which are uniquely and mathematically linked. This is asymmetric or public key cryptography, where the private key remains an exclusive secret. It offers the strongest protection for communications privacy because it returns autonomy to the individual and is immune to backdoors.

For those using public key encryption, Edward Snowden’s revelation that the NSA had cracked several encryption protocols including SSL/TLS was worrying. Brute-force decryption, the use of supercomputers to mathematically attack keys, questions the integrity of public key encryption. But, since the difficulty of code-breaking is directly proportional to key size; notionally, generating longer keys will thwart the NSA, for now.

The crypto-wars in India

Where does India’s withdrawn encryption policy lie in this landscape of encryption and surveillance? It is difficult to say. Because it was so badly drafted, understanding the policy was a challenge. It could have been a ham-handed response to commercial end-to-end encryption, which many major providers such as Apple and WhatsApp are adopting following consumer demand. But curiously, this did not appear to be the case, because the government later exempted WhatsApp and other “mass use encryption products”.

The Indian establishment has a history of battling commercial encryption. From 2008, it wrestled Blackberry for backdoor access to its encrypted communications, coming close to banning the service, which dissipated only once the company lost its market share. There have been similar attempts to force Voice over Internet Protocol providers to fall in line, including Skype and Google. And there is a new thrust underway to regulate over-the-top content providers, including US companies.

The policy could represent a new phase in India’s crypto-wars. The government, emboldened by the sheer scale of the country’s market, might press an unyielding demand for communications backdoors. The policy made no bones of this desire: it sought to bind communications companies by mandatory contracts, regulate key-size and algorithms, compel surrender of encryption products including “working copies” of software (the key generation mechanism), and more.

The motives of regulation

The policy’s deeply intrusive provisions manifest a long-standing effort of the Indian state to dominate communications technology unimpeded by privacy concerns. From wiretaps to Internet metadata, intrusive surveillance is not judicially warranted, does not require the demonstration of probable cause, suffers no external oversight, and is secret. These shortcomings are enabling the creation of a sophisticated surveillance state that sits ill with India’s constitutional values.

Those values are being steadily besieged. India’s Supreme Court is entertaining a surge of clamorous litigation to check an increasingly intrusive state. Only a few months ago, the Attorney-General — the government’s foremost lawyer — argued in court that Indians did not have a right to privacy, relying on 1950s case law which permitted invasive surveillance. Encryption which can inexpensively lock the state out of private communications alarms the Indian government, which is why it has skirmished with commercially-available encryption in the past.

On the other hand, the conflict over encryption is fueled by irregular laws. Telecoms licensing regulations restrict Internet Service Providers to 40-bit symmetric keys, a primitively low standard; higher encryption requires permission and presumably surrender of the shared key to the government. Securities trading on the Internet requires 128-bit SSL/TLS encryption while the country’s central bank is pushing for end-to-end encryption for mobile banking. Seen in this light, the policy could simply be an attempt to rationalize an uneven field.

Encryption and freedom

Perhaps the government was trying to restrict the use of public key encryption and Internet anonymization services, such as Tor or I2P, by individuals. India’s telecoms minister stated: “The purport of this encryption policy relates only to those who encrypt.” This is not particularly illuminating. If the government wants to pre-empt terrorism — a legitimate duty, this approach is flawed since regardless of the law’s command arguably no terrorist will disclose her key to the government. Besides, since there are very few Internet anonymizers in India who are anyway targeted for special monitoring, it would be more productive for the surveillance establishment to maintain the status quo.

This leaves legitimate encrypters — businesses, journalists, whistle blowers, and innocent privacy enthusiasts. For this group, impediments to encryption interferes with their ability to freely communicate. There is a proportionate link between encryption and the freedom of speech and expression, a fact acknowledged by Special Rapporteur David Kaye of the UN Human Rights Council, where India is a participating member. Kaye notes: “Encryption and anonymity are especially useful for the development and sharing of opinions, which often occur through online correspondence such as e-mail, text messaging, and other online interactions.”

This is because encryption affords privacy which promotes free speech, a relationship reiterated by Frank La Rue, a previous UN Special Rapporteur, in 2013. On the other hand, surveillance has a “chilling effect” on speech. Justice Subba Rao’s famous dissent in the Indian Supreme Court presciently connected privacy and free speech in 1962:

The act of surveillance is certainly a restriction on the [freedom of speech]. It cannot be suggested that the said freedom…will sustain only the mechanics of speech and expression. An illustration will make our point clear. A visitor, whether a wife, son or friend, is allowed to be received by a prisoner in the presence of a guard. The prisoner can speak with the visitor; but, can it be suggested that he is fully enjoying the said freedom? It is impossible for him to express his real and intimate thoughts to the visitor as fully as he would like. To extend the analogy to the present case is to treat the man under surveillance as a prisoner within the confines of our country and the authorities enforcing surveillance as guards. So understood, it must be held that the petitioner’s freedom under [the right to free speech under the Indian] Constitution is also infringed.

Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, (1964) 1 SCR 332 ¶ 30 (Subba Rao, J, dissenting)

Perhaps the policy expressed the government’s discomfort at individual encrypters escaping surveillance, like free agents evading the state’s control. How should the law respond to this problem? Daniel Solove says the security of the state need not compromise individual privacy. On the other hand, as Ronald Dworkin influentially maintained, the freedoms of the individual precede the interests of the state.

Security and trade interests

However, even when assessed from the perspective of India’s security imperatives, the policy would have had harmful consequences. It required users of encryption, including businesses and consumers, to store plaintext versions of their communications for ninety days to surrender to the government upon demand. This outrageously ill-conceived provision would have created real ‘honeypots’ (originally, honeypots are decoy servers to lure hackers) of unencrypted data, ripe for theft. Note that India does not have a data breach law.

The policy’s demand for encryption companies to register their products and give working copies of their software and encryption mechanisms to the Indian government would have flown in the face of trade secrecy and intellectual property protection. The policy’s hurried withdrawal was a public relations exercise on the eve of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley. It was successful. Modi encountered no criticism of his government’s visceral opposition to privacy, even though the policy would have severely disrupted the business practices of US communications providers operating in India.

Encryption invites a convergence of state interests as well: both countries want to control it. Last month’s joint statement from the US-India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue pledges “further cooperation on internet and cyber issues”. This innocuous claim masks a robust information-gathering and -sharing regime. There is no guarantee against the sharing of any encryption mechanisms or intercepted communications by India.

The government has promised to return with a reworked proposal. It would be in India’s interest for this to be preceded by a broad-based national discussion on encryption and its link to free speech, privacy, security, and commerce.

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