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WhatsApp allegedly banning users belonging to groups with malicious names: Report

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It looks like WhatsApp is not going to be lenient to its users who are part of WhatsApp Groups with suspicious or malicious sounding names.

The first report about such an instance showed up on Reddit where user Mowe11 put up a post speaking about his ban from WhatsApp. The user said that they were permanently banned from WhatsApp because one person from their University WhatsApp Group changed the group’s name to one referring in some way to the sexual abuse of children. This led to WhatsApp banning the entire group. The user got access to their account after one week, with no reason being given by WhatsApp for the ban.

A photo illustration shows a chain and a padlock in front of a displayed WhatsApp logo January 13, 2017. Image: Reuters

According to a report on WABetaInfo, there have been multiple instances of such cases that have been reported on Reddit. In fact, some users are claiming that a few people on their groups are playing this as a prank and getting WhatsApp numbers of all users on a group banned. When the banned users reach out to WhatsApp support for resolving their issues, they are being told that they were banned as they violated WhatsApp’s Terms of Services. So, even if you are wrongly banned, there is nothing you can do other than changing your number when using WhatsApp.

Earlier this year, there were reports from India and many parts of the world regarding how WhatsApp Groups were being used to circulate content related to child sex abuse. A two-week investigation conducted by the Cyber Peace Foundation earlier this year found that chat groups on WhatsApp continue to be created and used to disseminate and share Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) in India. The report noted that while platforms are using sophisticated technology to weed out such content, “groups are still being created regularly and active solicitation is also happening”.

“Interesting to note that most of these groups have group icons that are obscene and sexual and don’t just show adults but even children in sexually explicit activity directly. This presents a potential for technical tools to identify and remove such groups,” the report by Cyber Peace Foundation claimed.

Considering that end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp prevents it from reading Group content, it looks like the names or subjects of the Group can be seen at the server-side, though it’s likely that it’s not visible to other humans. If the group name hints at illegal activity, then WhatsApp seems to remotely ban those groups, in what the report states, appears to be an automatic process. WhatsApp also seems to be looking at group metadata such as the group creation date, group subject, group description, and so on.

Looking at the fact that we are all part of multiple WhatsApp Groups, whether we like it or not, it seems odd that WhatsApp is banning the numbers of all group members regardless of their involvement. Of course, this is not by any means a defence for those groups that do deal in CSAM. But, for most, group naming conventions are as random as they come and it does not define what is being discussed in the group. A user of a group with some malicious intent, for instance, may change the name of the group just to get other users in that group banned. Worse still, by default, WhatsApp allows anyone to be added to a group without permission. To prevent this from happening, you have to manually block users.

The only defence at the moment seems to be to ensure that only Group Admins have the right to change the group names by heading to Group Settings > Edit Group Info > Only Admins.

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