Indonesian police say they are monitoring private Whatsapp groups suspected of spreading hoaxes

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Photo illustration

Indonesian authorities have taken some controversial steps to limit the rampant spread of hoaxes and fake news, such as temporarily limiting access to social media during last month’s post-election riots in Central Jakarta. In another controversial move, police say they can and currently are monitoring private Whatsapp groups suspected of spreading hoaxes.

“The [Police] Cyber Directorate conducts cyber patrols in groups that are suspected of spreading hoax content,” said the head of the National Police’s cyber crimes unit, Rickynaldo Chairul, at National Police Headquarters in Jakarta on Friday as quoted by Tempo.

Rickynaldo said that police only monitored Whatsapp groups after an investigation gave them cause to suspect the group or any of its members. He also noted that hoax spreaders were increasingly turning to Whatsapp and other private messaging services since it was safer and easier than using social media to spread false information

It’s not exactly clear how the police are supposedly monitoring these groups. Responding to the police’s statement, a representative of Facebook, Whatsapp’s parent company, denied that police could “patrol” or “tap” Whatsapp groups due to the messaging app’s end-to-end encryption.

However, Whatsapp has been known to give in to demands from police and governments in other countries such as India seeking to clamp down on misinformation spreading on the platform.

Indonesia’s minister of information technology, Rudiantara, said that he supported the police investigating Whatsapp groups, claiming that they would only target groups as part of an authorized investigation and therefore it would not violate privacy rights.

By contrast, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), Anggara Suwahju, criticized the police’s Whatsapp group monitoring, arguing that it could be used to justify mass surveillance. Anggara said that authorities should instead focus on teaching people media literacy skills and critical thinking to prevent the spread of hoaxes.

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