Taking up the matter with the Chinese Ambassador, the Government Wednesday set up an expert committee under the National Cyber Security Coordinator to study the revelations in China Watching, an investigation by The Indian Express, that a Shenzen-based company, with links to the Chinese government, is monitoring over 10,000 Indian individuals and entities.
The “targets,” as the ongoing investigation has revealed, include President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, key Opposition leaders and men and women from across a range of disciplines, politics, legislature, science and strategy to business, judiciary and the media.
Explained | Why China harvests India data
The expert committee, led by Lt Gen (retd) Rajesh Pant, India’s chief coordinator on cyber security, will evaluate the “implications” of the digital surveillance by Data Information Technology Co. Limited and “assess any violations of law and submit its recommendations within thirty days.”
“The Government of India takes very seriously the protection of the privacy and personal data of Indian citizens. It is deeply concerned at any report that suggests that foreign sources are accessing or seeking to access the personal data of our citizens without their consent. The Government has constituted an Expert Committee under the National Cyber Security Coordinator to study these reports, evaluate their implications, assess any violations of law and submit its recommendations within thirty days,” Jaishankar wrote.
Top sources told The Indian Expressthat the key driver behind the decision to take note of this revelation is that the issues it raises, of data security and privacy, are similar to the ones that prompted the government’s ban on Chinese apps. “What we have come to know of Zhenhua’s project validates our concerns about Chinese mobile apps,” said an official.
Referring to the ongoing investigation by The Indian Express– its fourth part is being published Wednesday — Jaishankar said the matter was taken up by the Ministry of External Affairs with the Chinese Ambassador today.
“Our Embassy in Beijing also raised it with the Foreign Ministry of China. The Chinese side conveyed that Shenzen Zhenhua is a private company and had stated its position publicly. On their part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry maintained that there was no connection between the company concerned and the Chinese government,” Jaishankar said.
Jaishankar said a representative of Shenzen Zhenhua has in a statement “stated that the data collected was from open sources and is no different from its peer organisations in Western countries.” They have, he said, denied accessing private information from confidential sources. “As for the OKIDB, the company claimed that this was a mechanism to connect individuals to the social media that they use,” he said.
Jaishankar’s response came hours after Venugopal and his party colleague Rajeev Satav raised the issue during Zero Hour, prompting Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu to tell the government to take note of it. “The Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, please take note of this. It has appeared prominently. So, inform the concerned minister, see what can be done and find out the veracity of it,” Naidu said.
Pushing for a discussion on the issue, the Congress again moved an adjournment motion notice in Lok Sabha, but Speaker Om Birla rejected it.
During Zero Hour, the Congress raised China’s “hybrid warfare” and its “watching on Indians” in the Lok Sabha. Raising the issue, Kodikkunnil Suresh called it a “cyber war,” and “direct attempt of information espionage and aggression by China.”
Joining the issue, Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said: “This Corona aggression has come from China to India; at the borders, the Chinese troops have done the aggression; and now there is hybrid warfare. Is the government aware of it?” He asked for a statement. “What will happen to our national security? The IT minister is here. Please tell us what’s happening.”
The Congress is now planning to move a calling attention notice on the issue in Lok Sabha on Thursday.
Congress MP from Ernakulam Hibi Eden gave a notice for adjournment motion to Speaker Om Birla. The notice called for a wider debate on “our security architecture” and said that the “credentials of our national security are being mocked by this Chinese firm…Such snooping should be nipped in the bud so that our sovereign rights are protected.” The Speaker, however, said he would not allow the adjournment motion.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China is “ready to enhance cooperation and communication with all sides, make and abide by global rules that reflect the will and respect the interests of all countries, prevent all practices that use one’s technological advantage to undermine other countries’ security, and safeguard global data security.”
“The company said clearly that it’s a private company, and its clients are research institutions and business groups. Instead of collecting data, it only mobilizes data which is open and available online. I’d like to stress that as a staunch defender of cyber security, China opposes and fights all cybercrimes. We would like to enhance dialogue and cooperation with other countries to jointly build a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative cyber space,” Wang said.