When traditional and conventional forms of warfare are becoming redundant, China has turned to the next level of warfare: Cyber warfare. This has called for a serious approach for tackling such threats, which targets the security of sovereign nation-states. China has always been surrounded with controversies where it is accused of misusing technology for its vested interests.
Countries worldwide are becoming extremely concerned with China’s increasingly aggressive espionage methods. One of the latest instances, where in late January 2023, a Chinese ‘weather balloon’ spotted high over American skies—borne along by high winds from Alaska to South Carolina, at an incredible 60,000 feet—provoked America to shoot it down.
Similarly, Hikvision and Dahua are also facing sanctions from various countries for attempting to jeopardise their security. There is an increasing concurrence among the nations that these firms are sharing intelligence with Beijing.
Quick glance at Chinese spying toolkit and international response
China has exported its surveillance technology to at least 54 countries. Hikvision and Dahua control 60 per cent of the world’s CCTV market. Hikvision alone controls 35 per cent of the Indian CCTV market. The figures suffice the need to amplify cybersecurity measures with utmost priority.
Critical and sharp rebuttal from the expected quarters have commenced. The United States (US) in November 2022 banned the importation of surveillance equipment made by Hikvision and Dahua as it posed “an unacceptable risk to national security”. The UK too followed suit last year; Australia joined the list quite recently.
As far as India is concerned, it is a wake-up call that the Chinese threats are not confined to the borders; they have already penetrated within. If taken at face value, omnipresent China has a high potential and probability of infiltrating and toying with Indian security in this fast-paced digital age.
In the Indian case study, experts have gathered concrete evidence that provides a clear picture of how China has dominated this space. About a million stand unblinkingly in government institutions, and another million cover India’s civic life.
The United States in November 2022 banned the importation of surveillance equipment made by Hikvision and Dahua as it posed “an unacceptable risk to national security”. The UK too followed suit last year; Australia joined the list quite recently. As far as India is concerned, it is a wake-up call that the Chinese threats are not confined to the borders; they have already penetrated within
Count everything from private bungalows to the 1,50,000 CCTV cameras on Delhi’s streets, to those used on the Delhi Metro or by the SPG, right up to highly sensitive defence sites via Bharat Electronics Limited and DRDO clientship. Others reveal that an internal note from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in May 2021 observed grimly that surveillance cameras of Chinese make were installed in all Indian naval establishments.
Another major example of bypassing Indian restrictions and escaping scrutiny, Chinese companies were seen bidding for tenders issued by public sector undertakings (PSUs) by presenting themselves as entities registered in other countries.
A study by Major General PK Mallick released in 2021 said that Chinese malware was flowing into the control systems that manage electric supply across India at the time when the armies from the two countries were involved in skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border, including near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Tibet Autonomous Region, and near the border between Sikkim and Tibet.
Meanwhile, India’s IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, said India is capable of countering any cybersecurity threat, and concerned wings are working on potential threats from China-made security cameras.
On the other hand, these advanced devices are embedded with a sophisticated integrated circuit called a System-on-Chip (SoC). It involves a comprehensive, powerful assembly of functions like the CPU, graphics processor, memory and, more crucially, WiFi or cellular radio modems—all crunched into a chip that can be as small as a shirt button. Modem connectivity means its capabilities can be switched on remotely.
Ill-famous HiSilicon, a wholly owned company by Huawei that gained notoriety amidst allegations that it served as a cat’s paw for Chinese espionage. It was banned from several 5G markets, including India.
Experts and scholars have emphasised that this new age warfare and snooping, which is hybrid and abstract in nature and mostly inscrutable, is mostly driven by cyber warfare. Hence, cyber security and its associated domains must be at the affairs’ helm. The ignorance towards a mere CCTV has rendered mischiefs like China a free pass.
China has touched upon the vulnerable places, which is irking and making the countries apprehensive regarding the sensitive data which, if it gets on the wrong set of hands (here China), can decimate countries with a snap of the fingers.
The term’ closed-circuit television camera’ conjures up a simplistic vision: an all-seeing eye that never sleeps, but the data it generates flowing only within a tight, restricted loop. What if the circuit were not as closed as everyone imagined?
In the Indian context, many ask that if these Chinese firms are up to something ulterior, then why India has not banned them? Despite the government’s restrictions on companies associated with entities from countries sharing land borders with India from bidding for tenders, no restrictions exist on the use of these companies’ products.
However, no decision can be taken in isolation and banning Chinese apps and companies is not enough to establish a secure environment. India has noted now that CCTV cameras dominate our market—accounting for up to 80 percent of domestic applications and over 98 per cent of government installations, including military compounds. For now, India can phase out the equipments from such Chinese companies to prevent a complete collapse of the electronic market.
To rectify the loose ends, Indian Government tenders now give preference to domestic manufacturers under Make in India programme, Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) certification is a prerequisite for the import of electronics and information technology products, PLI benefits to domestic manufacturers are provided which aligns with the Make in India initiative, development of India own 5G technology is already underway. These actions are tightening the knots. It has given a green light to self-reliance and fortifying itself from such alien hazards.
However, should the Government of India follow the footsteps of the West and ban such Chinese surveillance companies? Will this alone ensure Indian cyber security then?