Mumbai: If recent reports are to go by, WhatsApp Pay could be used by at least 2 crore Indians thanks to leading banks and the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) for enabling WhatsApp to connect with the Unified Payments Interface(UPI).
On Wednesday, WhatsApp Pay announced that it was live with leading banks of India - State Bank of India, HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank, and Axis Bank via the National Payments Corporation of India's (NPCI) UPI network.
WhatsApp received approvals to go live on the UPI network in November. The UPI network is an interface that allows communication between 160 supported banks. WhatsApp has initially received approval for a customer base of 2 crore registered users. The information was shared during the 'Fuel for India' event held on Facebook live.
NPCI data states that Whatsapp processed payments worth Rs 13.87 crores via 3.1 lakh transactions in November.
Surprisingly, the concerns surrounding WhatsApp's Payment service are being deliberated at the highest court. The Supreme Court was hearing a petition filed by Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam who's complaint suggests that WhatsApp Pay similar to Amazon Pay and Google Pay accesses the UPI network and could be misused.
"The RBI and NPCI have permitted the three members of "Big Four Tech Giants'', Amazon, Google and Facebook/WhatsApp (Beta phase) to participate in the UPI ecosystem without much scrutiny and in spite of blatant violations of UPI guidelines and RBI regulations," the plea observed.
The RBI responding to the Supreme Court said that it does not provide approvals to tech leaders such as Amazon, Google and WhatsApp referred to as Third Party App providers (TPAPs), who design and provide the customer interface. The banking regulator further absolved its role while adding that governance of TPAPs was under the ambit of the NPCI.
The bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde, Justice AS Bopanna, and Justice V Ramasubramanian have asked the NPCI via its counsel to respond to Viswam's petition. Advocate Krishnan Venugopal, Viswam's counsel, has also alleged that financial and payment data of scores of Indians could be compromised. He reminded the court on the concerns surrounding complaints of Spyware Pegasus which could be used by anybody to snoop on activities of WhatsApp users.
"Problem with WhatsApp, Amazon, and Google is that when they allow payment to happen and data goes abroad. Critical financial data is allowed to be accessed by companies abroad and RBI justifies it. This is a violation of privacy judgment as my data is being grossly misused as these companies then collect this data and use it for advertisement purposes," Venugopal was quoted as saying in an ANI report.
According to latest reports, Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli Cyberarms firm NSO Group, was reportedly sold to clients in the UAE and Gulf for state surveillance.
WhatsApp's legal counsel Kapil Sibal refuted the allegations terming them as "absolutely baseless". WhatsApp has also refuted the allegations of its users being snooped via Pegasus. A 2019 Indian Express report, however states that Indian journalists and activists were snooped with this unethical tool. And, the report also states WhatsApp admitting that Indian activists were indeed snooped for two weeks.
Venugopal has also brought to record the anti-trust movement at big technology companies in the US. US authorities have looked at the possibility of breaking up Facebook which owns WhatsApp and Instagram besides the social media platform itself. The role of tech companies such as Amazon and Google is also closely monitored.
Speaking of Google, Timnit Gebru, a prominent researcher writing on the case of unethical use of Artificial Intelligence at Google has maintained that her scholarly work was responsible for Google firing her. However, Google in its statements has called her ouster as just an "exit". The petition at India's Supreme Court is certainly concerned on how complex Artificial intelligence and data models could wreck havoc on the financial lives of scores of Indians. And, certainly the availability of quick and seamless transactions may be no benefit when stacked against the risks of complex threats and data-sovereignty.
Even as the hearing at the Supreme Court awaits for an official response from the NPCI, bankers supported the availability of payment services on WhatsApp.
"We introduced banking services on WhatsApp in April. Over two million users have adopted banking services on WhatsApp in this short span. Now with WhatsApp Payments, there is a unique opportunity to scale essential financial services to people all over the country with ease," said Bijith Bhaskar, Head - Digital Channels & Partnership, ICICI Bank.
Parag Rao, Country Head-Payments Business, Consumer Finance, Digital Banking & Marketing, HDFC Bank said that the partnership with WhatsApp Pay is yet another important step toward achieving financial inclusion and making affordable financial services available to Indians. "Such partnerships will further fuel the economic growth and development of the nation," Rao added.
"UPI is a transformative service and we jointly have the opportunity to bring the benefits of our digital economy and financial inclusion to a large number of users who have not had full access to them before," Abhijit Bose, Head of WhatsApp, India.
"We're excited and privileged to partner with State Bank of India, ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank and AXIS Bank to bring simple and secure digital payments to WhatsApp users across India," Bose was quoted as saying in a statement.
At the start of November, WhatsApp Pay was blocked in Brazil (considered the second biggest payments market after India) owing to security concerns. The Central Bank of Brazil was recently reported as holding talks with WhatsApp to resume payment services in the country.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court bench will resume hearing in the matter in the fourth week of January.
Disclaimer: With additional inputs from IANS. Lead image is a collage with Mr Mark Zuckerberg's image attributed to Alex Brandon for AP -- Facebook CEO testifying before a committee in Washington as on Apr'18.