India might be physically keeping the Chinese out of its borders, but they could already have a foothold in India thorough an unlikely source — Indian soldiers’ smartphones.
Troops positioned on India’s Chinese borders have been instructed to format their phones and delete many Chinese apps from their phones, reports the Print. “According to reliable inputs, a number of Android/IOS apps developed by Chinese firms or having Chinese links are reportedly either spyware or other malicious ware. Use of these apps by our personnel can be detrimental to…national security,” the troops were instructed on 24th February.
42 apps have been banned in all, and the vast majority are of Chinese origin. “If (soldiers) are already using any of these apps, then they should be asked to immediately uninstall the app and format their cellphones,” the notice said. China-based WeChat and Weibo are on the list, as is Chinese browser UC Browser, the most popular mobile browser in India. Apps developed by Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google, and Chinese networking company QQ have also been disallowed. Apps developed by Chinese phone makers also make an appearance — Xiaomi’s Mi Store, Mi Community, and Mi Video Calling apps have all been banned, as has popular Chinese news aggregator NewsDog.
It’s exceedingly likely that Indian soldiers would have Chinese apps on their phones — as of this year, over half of all smartphones sold in India made by Chinese companies. Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, and Gionee have flooded the Indian smartphone market with cheap, reliable phones, and Indian have taken to them in droves. Several Chinese companies have also developed popular apps — UC Browser, for instance, the most widely used browser on Indian smartphones, but is owned by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
And Android permissions typically work in a fashion that allows app developers access to a plethora of information from the phones they’re installed on. Several apps allow developers to check phone locations, view photos, and even listen in through the microphone at all times. This could have serious security implications on the border — a malicious app developer can check the location of a solider’s phone to detect troop movements, and even listen in to conversations.
There are usually stringent rules regarding the sharing of such information, but China’s one-party system allows its government near-absolute power. It’s not inconceivable that this data could be handed over by Chinese companies to the Chinese government, which can ultimately use it during a conflict. And China’s apps already have a sketchy record on the Play Store — UC Browser was recently taken off the Play Store by Google for violating some of its policies, and NewsDog had been off the Play Store for months last year.
The timing of the ban on Chinese apps, though, isn’t surprising. India has had a fractious relationship with China in the recent past, with the two nations having squared off at Doklam a few months ago. Both sides had amassed troops on each side of the border, and a conflict looked imminent. The crisis was finally averted, but given this recent directive about Chinese apps, the Indian government clearly believes that the threat won’t necessarily come from across the border — it could have already crossed over, along with the flood of smartphones and apps that the Chinese have sent over in the last few years.