Chinese apps can pose security risks

Blaise Fernandes | Updated on May 20, 2020 Published on May 20, 2020

Apps such as UC Browser and TikTok are no longer tool-based products, but content players in India

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 you don’t need to offer obeisance to the Chinese Communist Party. But by signing up for Chinese apps and permitting investments in 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 — super interface; easy to use, namely, registration is simple, no credit card details, etc., required; low use of bandwidth, and interactive features. They are created keeping emerging market ecosystems in mind which, in turn, is a larger part of the Digital Silk Route strategy by China.

The government must be commended for the review of FDI norms — Press Note. 3 (2020 series) — 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: apps like UC Browser and TikTok; and investments Chinese companies are making in entertainment-based apps in India.

Security risks

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: Just 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.

With the app being youth-centric, questions remain if the data on Indian users are being handed over to Chinese authorities as content moderation, privacy and security controls of such apps are based in China. Just recently, in the US, Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Rick Scott introduced a Bill in the Senate to ban TikTok for all users holding government devices.

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

In entertainment-based apps, the content is curated and the owners/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 who are coming on board that is the area of concern.

There is every possibility that these apps from bordering nations will be used to foment communal disharmony and civil disobedience, and given the education and exposure levels of the next generation of smartphone users, there remains a grave security risk especially as smartphone penetration and data speed 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 — like SEC in the US, or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the UK. There is accountability, and should something go wrong we know 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 some of the cash-rich navratnas like RITES and NTPC to make investments in the start-up space. And, as suggested by the EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, the state must ring-fence the local media and entertainment companies from any predatory moves, especially from investment destinations where the rule of law doesn’t exist.

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

The writer is Director, Gateway House


Published on May 20, 2020

A letter from the Editor

Dear Readers,

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world completely in the last few months. All of us have been locked into our homes, economic activity has come to a near standstill. Everyone has been impacted.

Including your favourite business and financial newspaper. Our printing and distribution chains have been severely disrupted across the country, leaving readers without access to newspapers. Newspaper delivery agents have also been unable to service their customers because of multiple restrictions.

In these difficult times, we, at BusinessLine have been working continuously every day so that you are informed about all the developments – whether on the pandemic, on policy responses, or the impact on the world of business and finance. Our team has been working round the clock to keep track of developments so that you – the reader – gets accurate information and actionable insights so that you can protect your jobs, businesses, finances and investments.

We are trying our best to ensure the newspaper reaches your hands every day. We have also ensured that even if your paper is not delivered, you can access BusinessLine in the e-paper format – just as it appears in print. Our website and apps too, are updated every minute, so that you can access the information you want anywhere, anytime.

But all this comes at a heavy cost. As you are aware, the lockdowns have wiped out almost all our entire revenue stream. Sustaining our quality journalism has become extremely challenging. That we have managed so far is thanks to your support. I thank all our subscribers – print and digital – for your support.

I appeal to all or readers to help us navigate these challenging times and help sustain one of the truly independent and credible voices in the world of Indian journalism. Doing so is easy. You can help us enormously simply by subscribing to our digital or e-paper editions. We offer several affordable subscription plans for our website, which includes Portfolio, our investment advisory section that offers rich investment advice from our highly qualified, in-house Research Bureau, the only such team in the Indian newspaper industry.

A little help from you can make a huge difference to the cause of quality journalism!

Support Quality Journalism
  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.
You have read 1 out of 3 free articles for this week. For full access, please subscribe and get unlimited access to all sections.