2 min read.Updated: 30 Aug 2021, 09:32 PM ISTLivemint
India’s ban on these apps after last year’s Galwan hostilities with China looked arbitrary and was weakly applied. We need a consistent policy on data abuse based on sound principles
A little over a year after India’s post-Galwan crackdown on Chinese apps for smartphones, done in the interest of our national security, as the Centre said, several have been found to be still around. Some went undetected simply by masking their origin, as reported, while others have been spotted on app stores in the guise of offerings from unfamiliar companies whose ownership is obscure. The smokescreen afforded by a global maze of equity holdings and complex corporate structures has been enough for some of these apps to not just sustain operations but also flourish on Indian handsets. According to estimates, Chinese-run apps may have over 200 million users in the country. At one level, this reflects a failure of the government’s action last year, when it banned more than 250 Chinese apps in a flurry of moves after last summer’s deadly clash between Indian and Chinese forces in Ladakh’s Galwan region. At another, it enjoins us to attain clarity on what the ban’s purpose was and our policy against the menace identified.
The government had cited threats to India’s sovereignty and integrity posed by Chinese apps on our phones. But, oddly, last year’s list has not been subject to the kind of dynamic updates expected of a security establishment that has eyes peeled for dangers lurking online. Chinese businesses enjoy little freedom from Beijing and our principal anxiety was the potential use of apps as spyware. In theory, any app that gains access to our pictures, contacts, messages, cameras and microphones, as many do in practice, can serve as an espionage device. To prevent the abuse of hand-held gadgets, users need to stay alert to telltale signs of it. Our authorities, however, have not put out any report of a probe so far on the specific risks we bear. This suggests that our ban on apps from a country deemed hostile was just an arbitrary pressure tactic, or a retaliatory weapon aimed at Chinese commercial interests more than anything else. China did articulate a protest back then, though it’s unclear if it took a knock of any significance. Our Himalayan border tensions, meanwhile, have eased. Yet, it would be odd if our official risk readings of spycam exposure or data theft have also been notched down.
How we block online spies and safeguard our data should not depend on overnight notices issued by the Centre in response to external aggression. It is a matter of high priority in its own right and needs a stable policy framework based on clear principles. We have already lost much time on the regulation of personal data and a badly-needed legal framework for our privacy. Unfortunately, the government’s last legislative proposal had many shortcomings. Since no enactment has been made yet, we could still aim for a law that will not just serve its immediate ends, but also stay relevant as technologies and circumstances shift. As a guiding principle, we should be granted explicit ownership of what we place of ourselves online—especially in an app’s custody—so that clear and comprehensive rules can be framed for this data’s collection, use, storage and retention on the basis of that right. Data expropriation by law-enforcers should require the sanction of a judicial authority. Should the state have a valid reason to fear the abuse of our data or cameras by errant apps, then our privacy law could enable blanket bans on them. For all this, we need a law drafted to maximize the security of individuals as much as the country.