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4 June 2020, The Hindu Business Line

Chinese apps pose a security risk

With more than 130 and 119 million users respectively, Chinese apps such as UC Browser and TikTok are not merely internet products, but serious content aggregators in India. But the final control of data collected by these apps resides in China, and this creates a grave risk to national security.

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In the 1400s Zheng He, a slave who went on to become the admiral of the Ming dynasty’s empire, led seven voyages to the south and west of China. Admiral Zheng offered treasures to every leader he met on these voyages, but only if the leaders acknowledged the Emperor. Gifts are pouring in from China even today, and one doesn’t need to offer obeisance to the Chinese Communist Party. However, signing up for Chinese apps and permitting investments in them, and giving them access to personal data and control of your company, have become the new deferential forms of respect.

There are a number of reasons why these apps are more attractive to the consumer. The interface is easy to use, registration is simple, no credit card details are required, low use of bandwidth, and several interactive features. These apps are created keeping the emerging market ecosystems in mind, which, in turn, are a larger part of the Digital Silk Route strategy by China.

The Indian government must be commended for the review of FDI norms to scrutinise investments by entities from states bordering India, as some of these investments are strategic in nature.

So what are these security concerns? Let’s split these up into two distinct areas to see the strategic nature of these apps and investments;  pps such as UC Browser and TikTok, and investments Chinese companies are making in entertainment-based apps in India.

UC Browser: Through algorithms, the browser can control what you need to see – an example being the Chinese side of the history on the India-China War. It is no longer a browser and a tool-based product, but a content player in India.

TikTok: Last week, leading mainline publications carried a story that Voyager Infosec, a digital lab, found 30,000 clips targeted against a particular community, which could have led to sectarian violence. TikTok is largely youth-centric and the question arises – is the data on Indian users is being handed over to Chinese authorities as content moderation, privacy and security controls of such apps are based in China? Just recently, Republican Senators, Josh Hawley and Rick Scott introduced a bill in the U.S. senate to ban TikTok for all government devices.

Meanwhile, to fend off these allegations, TikTok plans to have a ‘transparency centre’ in the U.S. to deal with content moderation, privacy, and security controls for the domestic U.S. market and, hopefully, it will plan the same for India.

Entertainment-based apps: In these apps, the content is curated and the owners and promoters of the application can decide editorial changes or creatives. In India, the existing 400 million smartphone users are educated and informed, and can distinguish between propaganda and facts. It’s the next 450 million users coming on board that pose an area of concern.

There is every possibility that such apps from bordering nations can be used to foment communal disharmony and civil disobedience. Given the education and exposure levels of the next generation of smartphone users, this is a grave security risk, especially as smartphone penetration and data speeds improve in sensitive border areas.

Yes, investments are needed in tech and they have to come from somewhere. They must ideally come from liberal democracies where there is rule of law and powerful regulatory bodies — such as the SEC in the U.S., or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the U.K. This will ensure there is accountability, and should something go wrong India knows what to do, and there are even extradition treaties in place. So tech companies from these countries play by the rule book when it comes to law and order, and national security.

It is also time for cash-rich navratnas, such as Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES) and National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) to make investments in the start-up space. And, as suggested by the E.U. Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, the state must ring-fence local media and entertainment companies from any predatory moves, especially from investment destinations where the rule of law doesn’t exist.

The quote from the story of the Trojan Horse, “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, is even more relevant today in terms of national interest and security.

Blaise Fernandes is Board Member, Gateway House, and President & CEO, The Indian Music Industry.

This article was originally published by The Hindu Business Line.