India should build an “impregnable firewall” to counter the “menacing syndrome” of Chinese “digital aggression” of carrying out surveillance on “everyone from king to public” in India, Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury (Berhampore, West Bengal) said in Lok Sabha on Wednesday during Zero Hour. A second Congress MP, Kodikunnil Suresh (Mavelikara, Kerala), who had raised the issue of “surveillance” by a Chinese company of at least one thousand Indians, called it “an utmost condemnable act of violation of international norms and data privacy” and called it “an act of cyberwar”.

Chinese aggression on all fronts

“I don’t know if there is a way to deal with Chinese surveillance. But the fact is that the corona[virus] aggression in our country originated in China, China is engaging in physical aggression in Ladakh Congress, and now China is engaging in digital aggression,” Chowdhury said. He asked if the government knew that “the entire country was caught in this snare of surveillance”. “If a company from outside India can carry out such surveillance, what will happen to our national security?” he asked.

Suresh said, “The Chinese aggression in multiple factors, including cyber espionage, assumes significance when India is engaged in a simmering stand-off with China along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. The Overseas Key Information Database developed by the Shenzhen-based information technology firm, a company with links to the Chinese Government and the Community Party, which features Indian political leadership, is an act of cyberwar.” He further demanded that this be protested against at all international forums and “appropriate action” must be initiated at such forums. He also wants the Chinese ambassador in India to be summoned by the government to “register its strongest protest”.

Editorial: An Internet Firewall for India would be unconstitutional and totalitarian

Was the ‘spying’ by the Chinese data company such a big thing?

A consortium of media organisations had reported on September 14 that a Chinese company, Zhenhua Data, which has links to the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, had been monitoring public figures across the world, including 10,000 Indians. These Indians include Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ramnath Kovind, chief ministers Mamata Bannerjee, Ashok Gehlot, Amarinder Singh, Uddhav Thackeray, Cabinet ministers Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman, former and incumbent military officials, senior members of opposition parties such as Congress’ Sonia Gandhi and industrialists Ratan Tata and Gautam Adani.

This database was built by digitally scraping public and social media data of the targets. It then built a relational database where it also tracked the target’s friends and family to build a more detailed digital dossier. However, this practice, called open-source intelligence (OSINT), is not uncommon. Many cybersecurity and data analytics firms, both in India and around the world, offer OSINT services to employers to do background checks on employees, to financial lenders to check on prospective borrowers, governments, and others. And when it comes to government-based intelligence, building dossiers on key public figures is the modus operandi of every intelligence agency in the world.

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