While the needle in India has moved on Chinese software and applications, the national security threat posed by Chinese SMART technologies needs to be addressed promptly
Chinese software technologies and applications, ubiquitous on smartphones and devices until a few years ago, now seem to be facing bans and restrictions worldwide. Though technologies with indirect links to China, specifically those related to the Internet of Things (IoT) and SMART products that pose hazardous security risks, are still circumventing policy interventions.
Over the last few years, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States, New Zealand, and India have introduced bans in varying capacities on Chinese applications and technology due to data leaks, vulnerabilities, and national security risks that they pose. In most cases, state action has prohibited government officials from operating Chinese applications like TikTok on their mobile phones.
In 2020, the Indian government banned using Chinese mobile applications and software. This ban now covers around 250 applications. Even before this decision, the Indian Army set out a list of 89 Chinese applications that personnel must delete from their phones.
The Indian government banned using Chinese mobile applications and software. This ban now covers around 250 applications.
While the needle in India has moved on Chinese software and applications, there still seems to be ambiguity regarding the threat everyday technologies, specifically SMART products with Chinese data sensors, components, and modules, can pose to national security. This lacuna can have significant ramifications for India’s military establishment.
Essentially, SMART products encompass the range of everyday technology that is being operated across residential and office spaces in India. These include SMART CCTVs, air conditioners, refrigerators, coffee machines, printers, and bulbs, amongst other products. These can be operated remotely, understand the users’ optimum functional settings, and even adapt to electricity fluctuations.
SMART products are a subset of the Internet of Things (IoT). The adoption of these technologies is booming in India; data projects that the IoT sector would have a turnover of US$1.1 billion in 2023 in the country. Further, the market for IoT products grew by 264 percent in the second quarter of 2022.
With their efficient functioning, they are deemed to enter the military sphere—in both official and living spaces.
Given these realities, the adoption of SMART technologies will extend beyond residential and commercial settings. With their efficient functioning, they are deemed to enter the military sphere—in both official and living spaces. This is where risks associated with data leaks and pilferages associated with China can be problematic.
Most SMART technologies depend on data sensors, modules, and transmitters to connect to WiFI networks and function remotely. Even if the SMART products are manufactured in the West, they usually depend on China for data sensors, modules, and transmitters. Without them, the product no longer remains “SMART.” Further, even for data storage, Chinese servers provide the backend for SMART technologies.
The servers and software upgrade mechanisms of all these data components also operate from China. There exists a deep dependency on China for these products, which is fraught with risks. Through backdoors and listening channels embedded within these components, all the data collected from these SMART devices can easily flow back to China.
Most SMART technologies depend on data sensors, modules, and transmitters to connect to WiFI networks and function remotely.
This can lead to critical information, user habits, operational information, and intelligence from the military sphere being stored and recorded via servers in China, posing serious security risks for the country.
In the UK, a report sent to the government by a former diplomat explains that these Chinese components can be used to track the movements of intelligence officials and ministers and even stifle industrial activity. Even critical information on weapons stockpiles, spare parts, and armaments supply chains can be harvested through these data modules and transmitters in SMART products. Given that the Chinese government can order any organisation to hand over information to them, these implications are ominous for any country’s security.
For India, preventing the pilferage of critical and sensitive military information to China then is even more significant given the realities in Eastern Ladakh since 2020.
While the armed forces prohibit using SMART technology that is China-dependent in technical and operational areas, there exists an ambiguity regarding residential and non-technical and non-operational areas. The military must set out formal rules and procedures to counter any risks and data leaks emanating from these products in military areas where the products are not yet prohibited.
The first step can be a complete analysis of the SMART products being used by personnel in areas where they are not prohibited. This can give a clear picture of the risks associated and also categorise the types of products that store and relay information to China. SMART technologies that pose such risks can then be banned from even residential and non-technical, and non-operational military areas.
SMART technologies that pose such risks can then be banned from even residential and non-technical, and non-operational military areas.
Secondly, new software and technologies that are implemented must be thoroughly vetted before installation. Specifically, an analysis of their components to assess links with China must be undertaken. These rules must also apply if the products are of a Western make.
A coherent and institutionalised approach can then ensure India’s military is ahead of the curve in preventing data leaks and breaches through SMART technologies and IoT with linkages to China. Avoiding this reality could pose significant vulnerabilities for the country’s military.
Suchet Vir Singh is an Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
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Suchet Vir Singh is an Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. His research interests include India’s defence services, military technology, and military history. He ...Read More +