The Indian government is planning to build a chat and messaging platform similar to WhatsApp. This development comes after the US blacklisted Huawei. Fearing losing access to essential online systems, Indian officials want a secure, domestic network for governmental communication.
“Look what happened to Huawei, their Honor (branded) phones,” a government official told the Economic Times. “It was unthinkable, but now it has definitely rung alarm bells with us. Tomorrow, if the US finds us unreliable for some reason, all they need to do is ask their companies to slow down networks in India and everything here will come to a standstill. We are vulnerable and we must take steps to cover that.”
The Indian government is talking of a centralised app or messaging platform like WhatsApp for agencies, which officials can use for all work-related communication instead of their private emails and apps. This government platform will be hosted on servers within the country and, as a result, is expected to be safe from foreign pressures.
An official who spoke to Firstpost said, “There are strong discussions that, for strategic and security reasons, over a period of time, we should have email, messaging… all sorts of systems, at least for government communication, which doesn’t depend on outside players… We need to make our communication insular.”
The discussion for secure communications systems is a ripple effect of the recent US-China trade war.
Huawei becomes latest victim of escalating US-China trade war
Trade tensions flared between the US and China after US President Donald Trump placed a steep 25% tariff on Chinese goods tradeable to the tune of $200 billion. This rate is almost double the previous tariff rate.
After growing frustrated at the slow pace of talks between the two countries, Trump decided to increase tariffs to not only put pressure on the Chinese, but also close the trade surplus China has with the US.
“The 10% will go up to 25% on Friday. 325 Billions Dollars [sic] of additional goods sent to us by China remain untaxed, but will shortly at a rate of 25%,” tweeted Trump. In retaliation, China also imposed tariffs on $110 billion worth of American goods.
To make matters more serious, Trump effectively blacklisted Huawei, a major Chinese telecom company, from business in the US. Huawei sources chips from American suppliers, but now cannot unless it acquires special licences. Trump has even accused Huawei of spying on the US for China, but the company has denied those allegations.
Huawei is also at risk of being isolated in India because, despite six to eight months of discussion, Indian officials are not yet willing to allow the company to participate in its upcoming 5G trials because of the security reasons cited by the US.
Huawei India CEO Jay Chen has said that India should take an independent decision about whether or not Huawei should test the 5G networks and not look to the US for cues.
India is also not safe from the temperamental economic policies of the Trump administration.
India is already on a Priority Watch List for intellectual property violations. Its preferential status under the US Generalised System of Preferences trade program has been revoked, as well. The US also threatened sanctions on India for importing oil from Iran.
Trump also tweeted a condemnation of tariffs placed by India ahead of the G20 summit 2019. Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited India and sat down with PM Modi to discuss how the two countries could resolve their trade disagreements.
Are government communication systems reliable?
History has proven that centralised communication systems are vulnerable to external threats. The US has been especially prone to hacks and information leaks during and after the 2016 presidential elections that brought Trump to power.
During the elections, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were victims of a massive hack that leaked their emails.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the elections attributed this hack to Russian operatives. Clinton has also received backlash and was investigated for using her private email server to share classified government information.
The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal also exposed gaping holes in Facebook, one of the world’s most popular communication platforms. The firm was accused of scrubbing private information from over 50 million Facebook users without their permission and using that data to influence their opinions in the 2016 US presidential election.
The Indian government is racing forward with plans for technological advancements. But several experts have questioned if India has the top-notch cybersecurity infrastructure needed to secure all the information and data it is trying to digitise.
This concern is one of the main arguments against making Aadhar, a biometrics and demographic database of Indian citizens, mandatory. Aadhar has suffered its own alleged hacks and leaks such as the Indane Gas getting access to 11,000 customers’ Aadhar numbers hidden in URLs. Indane denied any leakage of Aadhar information.
Centralised communication platforms give hackers, terrorists, and other malicious groups a sure shot target for cybercrimes. Hence, the Indian government must ensure that all government communication can be stored safely and securely before it starts to use any one platform.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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