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WhatsApp Says It Can't Ban the Taliban, as It Can't Read Their Texts

What is the cost of privacy?

WhatsApp Says It Can't Ban the Taliban, as It Can't Read Their Texts
Taliban fighters with rifles (left), and people leaving Kabul (right). 1, 2

The U.S. is taking an "L" in Afghanistan, with diplomats and allies fleeing the country.

And as the Taliban began to solidify their control of the country and its capital, Kabul, the militant group employed the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp to proliferate its political views and curry favor from residents, according to reports from citizens and other observers on the ground in Afghanistan, in addition to an initial report from Vice.

However, since WhatsApp is an encoded and private messaging service, the company can't access the contents of messages sent to or from the Taliban, raising the question about privacy, and how it can at times work against the self-interest of the people.

WhatsApp can't read the Taliban's encrypted messages

A WhatsApp spokesperson told Vice the company fully complies with U.S. sanctions law, which means if it identifies a person or organization using the app that is currently sanctioned by the country, actions will be taken (including banning the accounts). But to determine the identity of a WhatsApp user, you need access to its messages. But this isn't an easy task on an end-to-end encryption platform, which is why we've seen no substantial actions taken against the accounts spreading the words of the Taliban in Afghanistan. "As private messaging service, we do not have access to the contents of people's personal chats; however, if we become aware that a sanctioned individual or organization may have a presence on WhatsApp, we take action," added the spokesperson in the report.

The Taliban sent messages to residents in Kabul, declaring their sovereign authority over security in the capital, urging citizens to report all looting or "irresponsible" behavior to them, essentially making the militant group double as the de-facto police force, according to a report from The Washington Post. "The Islamic Emirates assures you that no one should be in panic or feeling fear," read one message, reported the Post. "Taliban is taking over the city without fighting and no one will be at risk." As many of us should know by now, an authoritarian regime will always portray themselves in a good light, even and especially when they're at their worst. So it's no surprise that they don't shy away from using modern communications platforms.

The Taliban's WhatsApp use reminds us of the cost of privacy

Iran's ruling power uses Instagram and Twitter to share messages with Western powers. The United States invented modern media platforms, and it's not a stretch to say not everything the U.S. government or American corporations do or say is in the best interests of the people, so we should expect the same from their (former) enemies. But while the U.S. has virtually unparalleled control of modern communications systems, the Taliban is more skilled than some may want to believe. In the U.S., major politicians and corporate donors from major industries have been involved in activities that put human lives at risk (just look at climate change), but many are shielded by privacy laws. This has made necessary changes in the U.S. especially difficult since the 2010 Citizens United ruling of the supreme court, which gave corporations some of the same legal rights that human beings enjoy.

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On the flip side of the world, the same rights to privacy that can harm ordinary citizens in the U.S. also protect Taliban officials, whose policies will likely put the equal rights of women and girls at risk, may face no bans on encrypted platforms, since the appeal of security is the reason apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, and others exist. The question here is not whether we should do away with privacy because the goal of banning Taliban officials justifies the means of sacrificing so-called American values of individual privacy. Instead, what seems clear is this: For every vulnerable person who needs a secure and encrypted messaging platform to exercise their free speech without risking their life or livelihood, there is someone else willing to hide behind this veil of liberty to advance a cause that will ultimately diminish the human condition. And, in a world increasingly fraught with political division (and on the subject of a sovereign nation occupied by foreign powers for 20 years), there are grays on either side that aren't easily rinsed clean.

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