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India's telecom rules might require smartphone teardowns, in-depth testing

India's telecom rules might require smartphone teardowns, in-depth testing
Photo Credit: VCCircle
18 Oct, 2021

In a fresh bid to counter Chinese snooping on Indian citizens, India is mulling new regulations that would test all smartphones by Chinese brands to ensure they are not spying on them, reported Economic Times (ET). 

Citing unnamed sources, the ET report further states that the Government of India is compiling a list of trusted sources and companies that can test telecom equipment and networking products for spying. Phone makers may also be asked to furnish the source code of their smartphones for testing, the report stated. Most Chinese brands use proprietary custom UI or skin on top of Google’s Android OS and have a bunch of pre-loaded apps, many of which cannot be uninstalled or denied unwanted permissions. 

Though this move is part of the larger scheme of things to reduce the use of components and devices from specific Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE, it is likely to cover other Chinese brands such as Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo that dominate the smartphone market in India. Chinese brands accounted for 75% of India’s smartphone market in 2020, according to Counterpoint. 

Chinese brands have been in the crosshairs with privacy and security advocates and government agencies on time and again.  Last year, a security researcher named Gabi Cirlig told Forbes that a certain Xiaomi app called Mi Browser was recording his activities even when he was browsing in incognito mode or on the privacy-centric DuckDuckGo search engine. Xiaomi refuted the allegations and later added the option to uninstall the Mi browser app.  In 2014, cybersecurity firm F-Secure had reported that Xiaomi handsets were silently sending phone numbers, exchanged text messages and IMEI numbers to a remote server in China. 

In August 2020, mobile security service Secure-D flagged two pre-installed xHelper and Triada malwares on smartphones by Chinese phone brand Tecno, a subsidiary of Transsion Holdings, according to a BuzzFeed report. 

As the relationship between India and China deteriorated last year after the Chinese encroachment in Ladakh and the violent clashes that claimed the lives of over 20 Indian army men in Galwan valley, the Government of India clamped down upon hundreds of Chinese apps or apps with Chinese links for suspicious activities that threatened national security. Leading social media app Tik Tok and popular battle royale game PUBG Mobile were banned in India during this clampdown.