An illustration of India's on Chinese apps

Technology

The Chinese App Quandary—Patriotism or Privacy?

Political, military and nationalistic sentiment aside, the ban on Chinese apps has more significant fallouts for your data privacy and security.

On June 29, the Indian government formally announced a ban on 59 Chinese-made apps, citing the apps were, “prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity and defence of India.” The ban included TikTok, UC Browser, SHAREit, and lesser known but widely used apps like CamScanner, Club Factory and Shein. A month later, India banned 47 more apps that were variants and cloned copies of the 59 banned earlier. The new list included TikTok Lite, Helo Lite and SHAREit Lite, among others.

The political angle to the ban has been widely debated, and so has the nationalistic fervour that helps keep the anti-Chinese app sentiment alive. It’s a matter of time before other nations on the wrong side of China take a similar step. America did with a rather ‘trumpeted’ threat to first, ban TikTok, then oppose and eventually agree to Microsoft acquiring TikTok operations in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Might Microsoft India, with its deep roots, take the same route? Or will a desi tech Unicorn step up? Will India stand its ground or will economics and diplomacy necessitate the ban to be rescinded? This saga is not ending anytime soon.

In a new development, an executive order issued by President Donald Trump threatens a ban on TikTok and WeChat from operating in the US if they are not sold by their Chinese-owned parent companies in 45 days.

Indian users reacted to the ban with surprise, support and confusion. What a majority of them don’t know or don’t care is the likes of TikTok with millions of Indian users, habitually masks vulnerabilities and malpractices that users are blissfully unaware of or conveniently ignore, given their addiction or need for such apps.

Chinese apps are not the only culprits, but their customary disregard in addressing matters of data privacy and security, risks and vulnerabilities, and connection to a regime that works with vague cybersecurity laws, and makes rules that demand compliance without regard for individual rights and privacy. The Chinese way has led to warnings and bans globally long before the latest action by India. Heck, even the Chinese warn their own of these dangers.

It’s not the only bone of contention. Rules governing foreign-made app submission and operation in China are notorious for being tricky, bureaucratic, long-drawn and unfair compared with rules by Google or Apple. A foreign app can distribute their app independently, or use the services of a local partner to make the process smoother because “Chinese app stores see local accounts as being more trustworthy”, according to AppInChina, who claim to be the most trusted company for foreign app distribution and marketing in Mainland China. The local partner route is obviously preferred by most companies and developers.

But what’s the meaning of ‘trustworthy’ in a Chinese app store context? Why would Chinese app stores trust foreign apps any less that those made locally, when a Google or Apple provides a level playing field to all apps, nationality and trust no bar. Is the trust a tight facade for protectionist business practices or even censorship? And if so, what’s wrong if other nations measure Chinese apps with the same yardstick? No one knows for sure. Not many are asking.

It gets murkier. AppInChina informs, “the market is split into hundreds of app stores and the three main domestic phone carriers are government-owned companies.” While Google Play and App Store charge apps a standard fee of 30% per transaction, most Chinese app stores charge 50%. The revenue model too is tricky and multi-layered. Part of the registration process also involves developers submitting 80 pages of code held by the concerned government agency to be used as evidence in case you ever need to claim someone else violated the copyright on your software.

China has no qualms barring WhatsApp, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, BBC and even Quora, but strongly defends homegrown apps and technology, even in the face of lies, censorship and protectionist tactics, why should it not reek of double standards?

Take the case of TikTok, as opaque with app permissions and data ownership as any social media app. TikTok, though, has earned a reputation for being irresponsible with its habit of leaving vulnerabilities open or maybe even planting them, then issuing denials or feigning ignorance, and taking corrective action only in response to a hullaballoo. Like the time when Apple caught TikTok spying on iPhone users by reading clipboard content. It means you probably copied and pasted passwords, OTPs and other sensitive information on your expensive and secure iPhone, only to discover hackers and malware too had access to them through a backdoor you would not expect of iPhone. Multiply TikTok’s problematic behaviour with its user base and you see reason to the prevailing sentiment in India, as well as non-political, privacy and security related reasons behind the ban.

Many of the banned apps are habitual offenders. A 2019 survey by The Economic Times reveals six of the ten most popular Chinese apps, including Helo, SHAREit and UC Browser, ask users for permission to access camera and microphone when such permissions are clearly not required. The surveyed apps requested 45% more permissions when compared with the top 50 global apps. The apps were sending information to advertisers and analysers outside India, not entirely unexpected, but no one knows how much data leaves users’ phones and how it’s used.

In the global market share for mobile web browsers, UC Browser ranks fourth going from 6.62% in August, 2019 to 2.75% in July, 2020. It jumps to number two in India, peaking at 23.84% in August, 2019 and dropping steeply to 8.93% in India. In either case, the ban applied in June has impacted UC Browser’s overall numbers considering the significant usage in India.

Mobile Browser Market Share India, Aug 2019 - July 2020
Mobile Browser Market Share India, Aug 2019 – July 2020 / Credit: StatCounter

Clearly, we Indians appear to favour Chinese apps regardless of their dismal track record. A major reason UC Browser fares well is its performance in India’s challenged internet connectivity hinterlands, but there’s a price to pay. According to a 2015 survey by a Canadian research group, UC browser transmits personally identifiable information, geolocation data and search queries without encryption (it uses ‘http’ and not ‘https’) represents a privacy risk for users because it allows anyone with access to the data traffic to identify users and their devices, and collect their private search data. But lessons have not been learnt, because the browser has been called out time and again, but continues to be lax about data privacy  and violation of Google Play Store rules. If you use UC Browser, your data is already in the hands of third parties you did not intend to share it with.

Hark back to the Aarogya Setu app with 100 million and counting users, justifiably generated hot debate and questions, but Chinese apps with a few hundred million Indian users each somehow slip under the radar of scrutiny unless China ruffles us big time, like it did in Galwan. Whatever your reason for using Chinese, for that matter any foreign apps deemed suspicious, nothing’s worth trading your right to privacy in return for low cost, cheap thrills, entertainment or utility value. There are alternatives, most of them provenly better than the Chinese versions, which are anyway copies or clones of popular international apps.

Apparently, we haven’t seen the end of bans. A number of media reports point to a list of 275 apps, including PubG and AliExpress, that are under scrutiny and could be considered for a ban.

Bear in mind that a significant number of Chinese app makers, including renowned ones, demonstrate a zeal that leaves no room for ethics, safety and privacy. And you, dear Indian user, are the biggest group of short-changed test subjects in their laboratory for dominance of the app world. You have been warned.

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  • Last updated on October 1st at 9:12pm
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