India bans TikTok, other Chinese apps
The Union government announced on Monday a ban on 59, mostly Chinese, mobile applications such as TikTok, UC Browser and WeChat, citing concerns that these are ‘prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order’.
The move comes after weeks of discussions within the government that began before the border dispute with China flared up earlier this month, but was expedited in the aftermath of the deadly June 15 confrontation in Galwan Valley, officials aware of the discussions told HT on the condition of anonymity.
Officials cited above said Union home minister Amit Shah extended his support to the move to block the applications, and signed off on a recommendation by Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla on Saturday before the order was formally issued by the IT ministry as per protocol.
HT reported about these discussions and the possibility of the ban on June 17.
According to a statement issued by the IT ministry, the ministry of home affairs, Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre and many citizens had asked for the “blocking of these malicious apps”.
The concern in particular is about these applications jeopardising the data of Indian users. The 59 apps had been reported for “leaking data”, according to IT ministry official who asked not to be named.
“All these apps have been reported to have been leaking data. Their malpractices have also been singled out by experts. They have been said to take location data, transfer files to servers in China. Moreover, the beauty apps, such as beauty plus and selfie camera have also been reported for being a threat as they contain pornographic content,” this person said.
“Although most of these apps are of either Chinese origin or controlled by Chinese companies, there are others based out of Singapore and Hong Kong,” the official added.
Last week, cybersecurity researchers discovered video sharing TikTok was among several applications that could illegitimately access any data an iPhone user would have copied. TikTok acknowledged the issue and said it was due to a faulty component in the app, and that they would rush a fix.
Intelligence agencies have been pushing for restrictions on such mobile applications on grounds that they were designed to extract data and park them outside the country where they could be used to intrude into the privacy of citizens.
Such concerns were alluded to in the IT ministry statement on Monday. “The ministry of information technology has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile 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,” it added.
The ministry said it was using its powers under section 69A of the information technology act to announce the ban.
Among the 59 apps are some that are popularly used. TikTok, according to Bloomberg data, had nearly 200 million users in India as of January this year. Others, such as CamScanner and SHAREIt, are popular tools used by people to digitize and exchange information.
Chinese companies have been suspected of building backdoors in their hardware and software, a concern most prominently cited by several countries where officials have been wary of deploying Chinese-made 5G networking equipment.
Robert O’Brien, the National Security Adviser in the Trump administration, recently said China-linked companies acted as an arm of Beijing’s Communist party and tried to “control thoughts” to serve the party’s interests.
According to experts, further clarity on the ban will depend on the exact order issued. “At the outset, the government must make the order public,” said Ramanjit Singh Chima, lawyer and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now, an international digital rights group. “This is a press release, it doesn’t mention who this order is directed towards, is the app providers or the app stores or the internet service providers that have to enforce the ban.”
Cheema added that under section 69 of the Act, the IT Ministry has in the past kept such order confidential even though it is unconstitutional to do so.
“The bigger question to ask is, is it legitimate to issue a blanket ban on an entire service. International courts have ruled it is a disproportionate restriction on free speech, you can restrict content but it has to be in a proportionate.”
“In doing this, the government has also blocked legitimate government departments and the media who have a substantial presence on some of these apps. It goes against India’s ethos of free speech,” he said.
There are several government agencies, such MyGov and the Press Information Bureau that have accounts on TikTok and these will now be deleted, according to a government official who asked not to be named.