Threatened Tiger, daring Dragon: Indo-China equation in the age of Artificial Intelligence
By Girish Linganna
A country is always at war. Even in the background of diplomatic relations, strengthened ties, adherence to political boundaries, a covert attempt is made to create inroads that can be exploited to undermine the other. Once the realm of strict intelligence agencies, the information age has seen the globalized world employ ways to readily exploit and plan against the adversary without even physically crossing the borders.
Something so sinister is often in conspiracy theories, but is it?
The curious case of big data
Big Data is a peculiar buzzword that everyone knows about, but not about. This catch-all term refers to various technical concepts centered on capturing any and all data generated by a user. What does this mean for an average Joe? Most businesses use some kind of service to capture data about the users who visit their website or app. Google Analytics, one of the most popular tracking services, collects anonymous data on a larger level about the number of users, their sessions, approximate location, the kind of device and browser they use. This seems boilerplate until you see the full list of parameters collected by Google.
Google Analytics tracks events caused by your interaction with the website. When you click an ad, even when you just look at an ad, when you uninstall an app, when you first open an app. Even when you delete or delete app data on your device or something as simple as browsing, Google knows and collects it. Apart from your interaction with the website, Google not only knows your age, city, device brand, device model, etc. not, but also pass it on to the website or application. Sure, Google ensures that the data that is passed on is anonymized, but just because your information is anonymized when it’s passed on, doesn’t necessarily preserve your privacy.
The myth of anonymity
In 2017, those who grew up with Pokemon, a popular game franchise, rejoiced when it released its mobile game, Pokemon Go, in which players would use augmented reality to participate. The game is developed on top of Google Maps. The premise was to give users places where they could catch Pokemon. Does this sound like a fun way to get the gamers to touch grass? The Chinese government disagrees. The Chinese government moved quickly to ban the release of the game in the country citing consumer safety and threat to national security. What can a game do to a country’s national security?
Strava, an app used by fitness enthusiasts to track their runs, bike rides, etc. to track, released a map in November 2017. After each run, Strava generates a heat map that not only tracks which route the user took, but also their effort with a color. So, if you run through a stretch, it will be shown as red while that odd uphill section will of course be green. A worldwide map, of all users and their runs, will surely be a motivation for everyone. It would also be a threat to national security. And that is exactly what happened. In Syria, Afghanistan and Djibouti, soldiers at several US military bases have been staying in shape for work by tracking their runs on the app. When the map was released, many wondered who was running in these war-torn areas, in the middle of a desert. By overlaying anonymous data with a map, it exposed several US military bases. Zooming in on this also revealed the military base’s internal layout.
Dragon in the backyard: India’s challenge
If apps can be data hoarders on such a scale, what about the actual device you use? With Chinese manufacturers undermining the industry with cheap entrants, coupled with custom operating systems, custom system applications, etc., one begs the question, what is the threat these mobile phones pose to the users and the country as a whole. In today’s globalized world, it would be impossible to cut off any country, let alone a tech giant like China; however, we can choose who we trust. In the mobile phone space, the only major competitor is the South Korean giant, Samsung.
Since 2020, Indian agencies have been investigating several Chinese apps that were running scams in India. Many of these will borrow money and use extortion to get much more than the agreed amount. These apps first took permissions to view files, then downloaded complete user data to a server. Many of the users saved private data, including private images they were threatened with. Because the app also collected their entire contact list, the scammers threatened to share all these images with their entire contact list.
Many now believe that India is not only a decade behind China, but that it may be sliding into digital colonization. China has always targeted the US as a competition and has repeatedly tried to weaponize its AI to jump ahead of the US to achieve global dominance. For India, the challenge is to sustainably open up its population to AI, as many lurk to attack and eat the nation from within.
Writer is defense and aerospace analyst.
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