New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government, it is learnt, is looking into reports that a Chinese data firm that pioneers in “hybrid warfare” and is linked to the country’s administration tracked over 10,000 Indian nationals, including leading personalities like PM Modi and interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, as well as their families.
Sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint that the government has taken note of a report published Monday in The Indian Express, as part of an international expose, that suggests China may be employing hybrid warfare — using non-military measures to gain an edge over rivals — against India.
The Express report comes as India and China remain engaged in a tense border stand-off in eastern Ladakh, which began with Chinese incursions in May.
The report is centred on one firm, Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. Limited, which reportedly counts the Chinese government and military among its clients.
“Scraping information from the web and social media platforms, tracking research papers, articles, patents, recruitment positions, Zhenhua’s monitoring services map what it calls person information and relationship mining – networks among individuals, institutions and organisations, and changes in their leadership positions based on information from multiple sources,” the Express said in its report.
The report is based on metadata from the firm “obtained through a network of researchers from a source connected to the company based in Shenzhen City in Guangdong province, south-east China”.
The details also included data from other countries.
Speaking to ThePrint, sources made light of the report, saying access to open-source intelligence does not mean secrets are compromised.
“We have seen the media report on this. The report talks about open-source intelligence and this is something which many firms and agencies do. Tracking individual statements or social media presence does not mean secrets are compromised,” a source said.
A second source claimed that all issues of national security, including communication, are dealt with through various encrypted devices and channels.
A third source reiterated the claim.
“Open source is not an issue. The issue comes when someone is tracking the IP address or getting information from the use of Chinese phones. This is a fear that has always been there and, hence, necessary directions were issued against use of certain Chinese products, including mobile phones.”
National Cyber Security Coordinator (NCSC) Lt General (Dr) Rajesh Pant told ThePrint: “That is why we banned 224 apps! Even though the data collected is from Open Sources, it can be used for influence operations after profiling. Any intelligence operation against the nation is a matter of concern, although in this there is no loss of classified information.”
‘Not a matter of great concern’
Another set of sources in the government said open-source information is sourced by all countries, and this development is not a matter of great concern.
“The focus as of today has been the Parliament session, which began today. Relevant people will look into it,” a fourth source said.
Sources in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said countries have been collecting data on Indians for a while.
“During (American whistleblower Edward) Snowden issue, it also came to light that a surveillance programme was collecting data on India,” said a source. “While there has been no breach, India continues to strengthen its cybersecurity and infrastructure through a personal data protection law framework, and a revamping of India’s cybersecurity policy through the National Cyber Security Strategy 2020.”
Gulshan Rai, the former coordinator for National Cyber Security, said he wasn’t “surprised at all by the news”.
“The MSS (Ministry of State Security) of PRC (People’s Republic of China) as well as a branch of the SSF (Strategic Support Force) of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are actively engaged in collecting and analysing data worldwide. The entire work is carried out through non-state actors, which certainly include companies based in China with connectivity in different countries,” he said.
“Normally, one of the techniques is to outsource the work of camouflaging as IT services to a company of the respective country.”
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