Can Chinese apps pose a Security Risk?

Blaise Fernandes, Gateway House

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 the Director of Gateway House. He is also the President of the Indian Music Industry. He can be reached here.

This article was first published on Hindu Business Line.

Photo Credits: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

Photo Description: Youths act in front of a mobile phone camera while making a TikTok video on the terrace of their residence 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s