Experts say that we shouldn’t go with a single vendor; risks go down with multiple vendors.

New Delhi: The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has banned 59 mobile apps, including China’s TikTok, SHAREiT and WeChat on grounds of security. Its official statement said that it received multiple complaints from various sources about the misuse of some smartphone apps available on Android and iOS platforms for “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India. The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures.”

On the following Thursday, the Cyber Cell of the Ministry of Defence issued a cyber-security advisory to its personnel on these 59 apps. It asked for these apps to be removed from their phones by them and their family members. This is relevant as in 2016 a water-hole (luring to a topic of interest, in this case a defence news website), was an attack on defence personnel by two leading cyber-security firms—Trend Micro and Proof Point.

In a report dated 18 June in the Indian Express (IE), sources said that signalling behemoth China Railway Signal and Communication (CRSC) Corp is set to lose a Rs 500 crore contract with Indian Railways. It added that according to other sources, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has asked state-owned BSNL not to use Chinese-made equipment in its upgradation. Additionally, DoT was “actively considering” telling private mobile service providers to “reduce their dependence on China-made equipment. In the current situation, the safety and security of networks built with Chinese equipment will be under scrutiny. The ownership patterns of Huawei and ZTE could become a sticking point in India’s network upgradation (to 5G and 4G) plans.”

Group Captain Ajey Lele (Retd), head of the Centre on Strategic Technologies at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) says that it might not stop with apps. “India might no longer look at 5G from a technological or cost advantage perspective but purely from a strategic one,” he feels. “Not just now when the border is live but Chinese activities have always been seen with suspicion, whether it is cyberattacks or investments into Indian tech companies.” His view on 5G was shared by a few other experts who wished not to be named.

Munish Sharma, consultant at the Strategic Technologies Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), on being asked if China was stealing data, said that if we looked at history, in December 2017, the MoD issued a notification about 40-42 apps including UC Browser, SHAREit, WeChat and some Mi apps. Most of these were Chinese apps and among the non-Chinese apps there was TrueCaller. Due to the sensitive nature of their duty, defence personnel were told to remove these from their smartphones. Since 2017, security issues from these apps have been acknowledged. He added that there was also data sensitivity pretext and data mining issues.

Dr Lele said that cyberattacks were already happening (limited scale, low intensity) for some time now, but in the cyber domain there was the issue of “attribution”—proving who carried out the cyberattack. All such attacks are covert attacks. China is anyway unlikely to use cyber warfare as an acknowledged state policy.

India’s Leverage With The 5G Carrot

India, as the second largest country by population and with more than 420 million cell phone users, would affect how the 5G war turns out for the US and its allies on the one hand and China on the other. It should be factored in that some in India may have sought to curry favours with China in return for allowing Huawei into the country. But that seems unlikely now. India-China relations took a turn for the better after Wuhan, which led to tangible actions being taken like not blocking the testing of Chinese telecommunication equipment. Now India can use the same leverage to make China correct its course. The US warning about Chinese 5G equipment is one thing, but India doing the same is another. Not only would China lose out on the huge Indian market, the move would give the US an influential ally in its fight against China on 5G. Additionally, Indian action would trigger a chain reaction among various countries especially in the South East Asian region and NAM members. Can China afford that?

What Is 5G?

The fifth generation or 5G telecommunication networks are among the most talked about topics today. Network providers promise consumers seamless coverage, high speed data, low latency (delay in initiation of data transfer) and highly reliable communications with 5G networks. On the other hand, it is essential for Internet of Things (IoT), where multiple devices, like smart refrigerators, smart cars, etc., can communicate with each other and designated phones and computers. Such communication is the building block for the smart cities project. It would also help with tasks such as providing tele-surgery in smaller towns or remote rural areas. Recently in the NATO alliance a topic hotly discussed is also if Huawei should be allowed to supply equipment for its 5G networks.

Options For India

India has two simple options—to ban Chinese 5G equipment altogether or ban it from the core parts of the telecommunication network initially. How does this affect us in the technological and economic domain? Read on. The government might face resistance from the industry, but as Dr Lele points out, we must swallow the bitter pill. Munish Sharma too points out a way (discussed later) to mitigate these issues.

A senior expert says on the condition of anonymity that Huawei holds most of the 5G patents and also offers end to end solutions. CISCO and Ericsson only supply bits and pieces of the hardware. Huawei, in certain areas, also runs the telecommunication network for our telcos. When asked in the absence of skilled personnel to do it, Chinese vendors not only provided equipment for 4G in India but their banks also provided loans to telecom companies. As such, from the perspective of profit, Indian telecom companies prefer Huawei.

A suggestion is that we should allow Huawei components in our 5G network but also regulate it as UK. It doesn’t allow Huawei components into the core areas of its network but only allows it in its peripheral areas. “Data is the new oil—with 5G, data from cars, refrigerators, IoT devices could be visible to Huawei,” the expert adds. But now UK has banned Huawei altogether from its 5G network.

Group Captain Dr Ajey Lele, head of the Centre on Strategic Technologies at IDSA, says that we will have to weigh our options. Huawei is offering 5G technologies at a cheaper rate, many of the patents are held by Huawei. But there is also the larger motive of using tech for other purposes. Backers of the company say it is too early to pass a judgement. Huawei doesn’t have a good reputation as per US reports on them. US fears of cyber espionage are well founded. As such, total control of the network by Huawei is harmful.

Sharma adds that it is the call of the government whether or not to ban Huawei from the 5G network on reasons of security. On grounds of security, Australia and US stopped buying equipment from Huawei. But UK and Germany saw it from a broader perspective and didn’t play along.

Security Assurances

Munish Sharma says that this in fact started much before 5G was planned. Since 2012 itself, US has been trying to ban Huawei. In 2018, it barred Huawei from government contracts. We need to review the security issues thoroughly. The US has reviewed it and banned Huawei but we haven’t done it yet. We need to conduct an independent review for final deployment. UK has undertaken such a review and banned Huawei. Germany too is doing one such review. Experts say that we shouldn’t go with a single vendor; risks go down with multiple vendors.

Sharma adds that Huawei is around 30% cheaper than its competitors—Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung. Huawei’s turnaround time again is quicker. Speaking internationally, Huawei goes to far-off and non-lucrative markets like Africa, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. It is hence a cheaper and better alternative for telecom companies in poor countries

There is one way to ban Huawei, ZTE and still not face resistance from the telecom industry. Munish Sharma says that the equipment cost is fixed. But the government can cut spectrum costs and the benefits could be passed on to the consumer. 5G spectrum is many times cheaper in South Korea. US has made 5G spectrum free for a 10-year trial-run period. We should decide accordingly. This would place this essential industry on a marginally higher cost of equipment, and when deprived of soft loans Chinese banks provide to buy equipment from Huawei and ZTE.

It is time that India used all its options to push back border aggression by China. We can recalibrate only when China shows significant changes in its behaviour and withdraws from all its encroachments, but even then we mustn’t be complacent. Trust but verify as they say and keep strong cards not just close to our heart but use them to our advantage.