As if the border incursions were not enough, it has now emerged that China is insidiously taking the cyber route to keep prominent Indian citizens under constant surveillance. An international exposé by several newspapers has revealed how concerted attempts are being made to track thousands of Indian citizens by a big data firm with ties to the Chinese government. According to the cross-country investigation — joint investigations were carried out by news organisations in several countries — over 10,000 Indians in the fields of politics, government, business, technology, media and civil society, have been tracked by a Shenzhen-based information technology firm, Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. While the scale of profiling is staggering with huge ramifications, the targeted approach being adopted to specifically track key personnel is equally worrying. This serves as a wake-up call for India and highlights the need to look beyond military, diplomatic and economic options to counter the growing threat from China. The Chinese firm has been using artificial intelligence and big data-crunching techniques to track the digital footprint of thousands of Indians, including politicians, defence experts and leading scientists. The Overseas Key Information Database developed by the company records as well as monitors the online activity of individuals across various social media platforms. This hi-tech avatar of the Orwellian Big Brother is closely watching the Who’s Who of India. Though India has banned over 200 Chinese apps in the last three months, citing concerns over citizens’ privacy and national security, it appears that the move is merely a drop in the ocean when compared with a larger picture of surveillance.
China has an overwhelming presence in the Indian markets across several sectors. More importantly, it dominates the smartphone space. Keeping in view the security implications, there is an urgent need to incorporate stringent provisions in the Information Technology Act to curb third-party collection and misuse of data which is a double-edged weapon in the information age. Since it can be misused to spread misinformation, create social discord and discredit leaders and institutions, New Delhi needs to mount its response across multiple platforms. In this context, the need to put in place a robust personal data protection framework in the country acquires a new sense of urgency. Companies like Zhenhua, which work under the instructions of authoritarian systems, will use big data to mine information in more open democratic environments and manage to remain off the regulatory radar. The absence of consent for third-party data sharing makes matters much more difficult. There is no denying the fact that India is decades behind China with respect to both military capability on the ground and information warfare in cyberspace. It is time to catch up on both fronts.
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