‘Need to develop a system for telecom back-end sans Chinese presence’
In a telephonic interview with Kaumudi Kashikar-Gurjar, former top official of Research And Analysis Wing (RAW) and President of Centre For China Analysis and Strategy Jayadeva Ranade highlights dangers India faces as 80 per cent back end of telecommunication industry is being managed by Chinese companies
Q: Why do you think India has a greater challenge of sci-war, cyber security war and Information warfare?
China has always been a challenge. At one point in time, it was an emerging challenge, but since they began focusing on becoming a cyber super power and crafted a policy, which combined development of hardware along with software, their profile has risen by virtue of becoming a hardware manufacturing hub for the world and trying to combine the development of software. A lot of China-made machines are embedded with high-end cyber technology. They can be remotely controlled to a very large extent. As India has embarked on a major digitisation programme, we have become more vulnerable and, combined with our lack of security consciousness, this exposes us to further vulnerabilities.
Q: Please elaborate on how the digitisation programme has made India more vulnerable?
I will share a couple of examples. If we are buying equipment, let’s say for the Indian Railways. Since it is a public utility, it will not usually occur to people that there are security concerns. But if we look at the types of equipment purchased for the railways, we see the growing use of electric locomotives and advanced signalling systems. If these are embedded with Chinese chips, there is a high chance of the Chinese manipulating them remotely as most of chips have a ‘back door’ which allows the Chinese to access and control them. There is another example: some years ago in the United States, the Chinese were able to remotely turn off a power plant in the Mid West. When it was confirmed that the attack was from China, the US Government warned them that if it happens again, they will consider it an act of war and precision counter attacks will be launched. A few weeks ago, in India, tunnel boring machines loaned by a Chinese company and used for constructing the railway in Delhi stopped functioning. The concerned Chinese company was contacted. The company said payments were pending. ‘Please make them, we will sort out the problem!’ As soon as the pending bill was cleared, the machines were made operational. The meaning was clear: the Chinese are able to remotely control these machines and turn them off or on at will.
Q: Considering that spread of fake news can provide a threat to the national fabric, do you believe that adversaries of India have a role in the spread of such news?
Not just China but any adversary country or group of people who wishes India ill can launch such attacks. There are two such examples. There was a video which was being circulated some years ago alleging attacks on members of the North Eastern Community and saying how they were unsafe. This caused widespread disruption and large numbers returned to their hometowns. It was later found out that this video was doctored and posted by the ISI. It shows how even one such video can cause considerable disruption. Today, technology is highly sophisticated and the reach is much wider and faster. If someone takes a picture of a leader and uses technology to put words in his mouth while keeping 20-30 per cent of the data factual, the person seeing it on social media platforms will tend to believe it is genuine content. So, that is the danger of fake news. Many countries have now started to tackle it on high priority.
Q: Recently, the government has asked WhatsApp to convey the steps takes by them to deal with fake news.
We have over 200 million WhatsApp users in India. Using this leverage, the government can put pressure on the company to abide by our terms. However, there are two questions one needs to answer: Would everyone like the fact that the government has access to all their personal messages even without cause? Secondly, should government access be restricted to those who are suspected of criminal activity or terrorism? These questions need to be debated.
Q: Considering that 80 per cent of the telecommunication industry has Chinese presence and the way China controls its cyberspace, do you think India needs to take a cue from its neighbour?
The back room operations of most of our telecommunications companies are being carried out by two Chinese companies, namely Huawei and ZTE. Now, you can imagine a scenario: These companies can isolate one particular mobile customer or bring down the entire network. While the law enforcement agency will have to seek permission from the home secretary, the persons who are operating the backend do not have to apply for any permissions, they do it on their own. This is a serious concern. Unless we have a parallel system, which does not contain any Chinese chips, microchips etc, we will not be secure. Secondly, BSNL has gone in for Chinese equipment, thereby creating a weakness in our telecommunications backbone. There was a report in a newspaper last year when the Doklam crisis was going on and at which time one would expect Indians to be alert, particularly officials. BSNL at that time floated a global tender for a submarine cable, Huawei applied for it and as the lowest bidder, they were successful. Now, a submarine cable carries all kinds of traffic: sensitive and otherwise. This one was emanating from Vizag, where we have our missile testing range facility nearby. When a reporter checked with the Defence Ministry, he was told it was not referred to them. BSNL commented they would probably not give them all the jobs. I don’t know what action has been taken in that matter, but these Chinese companies have a very high stakeholding by the People’s Liberation of Army of China and the Ministry of Public Security. Most of the cheap phones now coming in the market have in-built features which ensure that their data is stored on servers of the Public Security Ministry in Beijing. So, whatever contacts you have on your phone, they have access to it. I think that is a serious risk.