HAMBURG, GERMANY: World over nations have been concerned about Huawei but the most recent concern that has emerged is the role of Chinese ‘spy apps’. Speaking at a lecture held at the recent annual Global Investigation Journalism Conference (GIJC) in Hamburg, Craig Silverman, media editor of Buzzfeed News who has been investigating the role of Chinese ‘spy apps’ staid that the world must follow India’s example and pressurise China over the lack of information surrounding its apps
“In India, Chinese ‘spy apps’ became an election issue. Indian legislators looked at the information and saw that Tik Tok really takes a lot of information from users and have started probing the role of Chinese app developers. To me, India seems to be a country that has made this (Chinese ‘spy apps’) an issue more than anywhere else. I am not aware of any other country that is doing this,” said Silverman.
He also warned that the threat posed by Chinese ‘spy apps’ needs to be taken seriously by nations and placed on the same level as that posed by Chinese telecom giants Huawei and Zte. “Despite their huge reach, Chinese apps have not received the investigation that they should have. What I found during my investigations was that app developers both in China and elsewhere were being reckless with user data. For instance, in many apps extra data was being taken from users, the names and websites of the owners were not being properly disclosed, and in some cases, it was found that users’ data was being sent to China without their knowledge,” said Silverman.
Tech experts believe the problem has not been highlighted enough because internet giant Google on whose Play store most of the apps are located has been doing its best to ensure the problem does not come under media scrutiny. In April this year, Google removed and banned 46 apps for reasons that it refused to discuss publicly. The main reason for Google doing so, it is believed, is to enter and capture the huge Chinese market. In 2018, the Internet giant came under tremendous criticism for its perceived plans that it was working on a ‘Google China’ project. The project has since been officially shelved but some tech commentators speculate that work on it is very much on.
What is a huge cause for concern is that a number of these apps not only belong to large app companies such as iHandy but also have a huge following. In its company page iHandy describes itself as ‘one of the world’s largest mobile application developers’ and claims that it has ‘180 million monthly active users in more than 200 countries.’
If this is the case, the apps could potentially be used for a number of nefarious purposes from bank fraud to potential electoral interference – already a fear in many countries thanks to Huawei. What is also possible is that such approximation of large data could potentially increase the role of ‘rogue’ non-state actors, a fear that is slowly growing with the increasing number of Chinese apps being removed from Google play store for violating norms
“This is the third time that Google has cracked down on Chinese apps and I estimate that more than a hundred apps have been banned from its play store so far. The problem is that even if Google bans them from Play store users viewers are still downloading them online from elsewhere with great dangers involved. In India, a hugely popular app VidMate – not available in Google’s play store – is actually getting users to subscribe without their knowledge,” said Silverman.
Such news is of special concern to developing countries as weak data laws and the popularity of Chinese apps have meant that the potential for misuse is large. Chinese app Tik Tok, was recently fined $5.7. million in the US for illegally collecting data on children. This app, however, continues to be one of the most popular apps in Asia, especially India, which currently has an estimated 120 million monthly active users.
Silverman believes that the data and the control apps like Tik Tok extracts over users’ phones is something that everyone must be worried about as apps are becoming the ‘new social media’ in the way that they are impacting our lives.