Hari Om Modi ji,
My second letter, as indicated in the first, is on the need to appoint a National Communications Advisor (NCA) mandated with the responsibility of not only securing and fire walling our scandalously poor data management system, but also replace it with a robust alternative. This is absolutely necessary to keep Chinese and other hackers at bay. With Beijing’s constant sabre rattling, the matter needs your utmost attention since it has a bearing on the country’s security whose dimensions extend beyond the army, air force and navy.
Like the National Security Advisor (NSA), the NCA too must be a domain expert of cabinet rank with a broad overview of all modern technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), telecom, and quantum computing. The NSA and NCA will be required to work in close coordination across all ministries which throw up sensitive data, chiefly Home, Finance, Defense, IT, Commerce and Industry, Information and Broadcasting. And above all, which many don’t know, the payments industry which comprises a clutch of companies in the UPI business. A McKinsey study estimates it at around seven to eight times our GDP. The volume slashes and cuts through all verticals.
Experts tell me it would be best if you create a body on the lines of the British General Communications HQ (GCHQ) comprising an army of techies from varied disciplines to help the NCA in his/her job. A think-tank to keep abreast with the latest researches and advancements in technology will be a crucial value addition. Finding the right man for the job will be difficult, but the search must begin in right earnest. Like NSA Ajit Doval, the NCA’s commitment to the national interest must be above suspicion. The person cannot be a Congress mole.
The thrust of this letter in equal measure is to impress upon you the peril from Chinese tech companies like Huawei and how they have been spying on our systems. The business practices of the Shenzen based MNC which sells telecom equipment, consumer electronics, and smartphones have repeatedly been questioned. It has been accused of stealing intellectual property. The long-standing links of its Founder-CEO, Ren Zhengfei, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is only too well known. Last May his eldest daughter, Meng Wanzhou, deputy chairperson and CFO, was arrested in Canada on American complaints of defrauding multiple financial institutions in connection with the sanctions against Iran. A full ban on Huawei doing business in US has been postponed no less than four times, the last of which expired on May 15. The company has been working on a temporary general license.
None of this seems to have had the slightest effect in the decision-making process of our national telecom carrier, Bharat Sachar Nigam Ltd (BSNL). It probably continues to buy its switches from the Chinese tech giant. A report in The Hindu dated 26 July 2013 tells me that the loss-making PSU had begun the transition from outdated time switching telephone exchanges to Huawei’s next generation networks. Modi ji, it’s never too late to change gear, howsoever abruptly, in matters with a bearing on security. Please request your telecom minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad ji, to take a call. I know Huawei’s pricing and other term and conditions are unmatchable. No company can give a credit of 7-8 years.
Another reason for outing Huawei from the Bhartiya telecom market is the coming transition to the 5G standard. The protocol is a sitting duck for surveillance. Quite apart from the health hazards, every single personal detail of the user, be it the innocuous reading of the heat monitor of the refrigerator, settings of the router, or home finance details are hackable. This is why the UK now wants an alternative pool of 5G equipment and technologies confined to the D10 alliance. D here stands for democracies. The name of Bharat has been proposed along with Australia, South Korea, France, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy, US and Japan. The grapevine has it that the UK probably woke up after the mercurial Donald Trump delivered an ear-lashing to UK PM Boris Johnson (BoJo) for having allowed Huawei access to parts of its 5G network.
GSM networks, Modi ji, were designed to allow eavesdropping by intelligence agencies to enable them to keep tabs on internal and external enemies of the state. This is why CDMA lost out despite its obvious superiority. The banking and payment system is naturally vulnerable to being hacked if it uses a telecom network to communicate financial data. Encryption is inadequate. A security architecture that protects the network end to end is vital. We thus have no option but to have our own platform with cutting edge technology to thwart digital spying and theft of intellectual property. Technologies routed from China and its front companies need to be carefully vetted. You cannot depend on foreign companies to ensure the volume, velocity, variety, and veracity of data coming out of their platform. The four Vs, so to speak.
The sly entry of Taisys, a Taiwanese player, exposes our laxity. Taipei’s semi-conductor industry depends on China for chip design, security kernel, operating systems, production facilities etc. Sourcing from Taiwan is virtually tantamount to sourcing from China. Knowledgeable telecom professionals say Taisys is among the scores of small and insignificant Taiwanese companies hand-picked by the Chinese government in 2005 to help them collect vital data on banking transactions of others through proxy SIM platforms.
Banks like Yes Bank and the Oriental Bank of Commerce nearly bit into Taisys’ bait in the mistaken belief that proxy SIM cards would secure their transactions from hackers. The bitter truth is that their platform is hugely vulnerable to hacking by both state and non-state hackers. This, despite claims of end-to-end encryption to ward off quantum computing threats requiring 256 or 512-bit AES encryption.
Validation of their proxy SIM architecture from Chinese courts helped Taisys acquire patents for the technology despite lack of R&D capability. But it failed to convince the National Payments Corporation to buy its knowhow. Its patents on mobile banking security have been rejected by most countries barring a few in Africa with strong business ties with China.
MoUs in fields like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, blockchain methodologies, deep data etc. have helped Taisys to camouflage its real agenda. And yet they have been given permission to expand their presence in Bharat. Clearly, there are better options. Germany with its robust quantum computing attack vectors, offers high security platforms. But none in the government has considered it with any seriousness. Deals like the recent Facebook-Reliance Jio investment were granted automatic clearance with nary a thought on the fine print or long-term implications.
Six years of sitting on the PM’s hot seat should have convinced you that the battlefield of the future will be shaped by technologoies in which targets will be struck from thousands of miles away by invisible soldiers not necessarily dressed in fatigues. Computer technology was first used in a big way in the Persian Gulf War of 1992 when the US employed new-fangled applications like the Global Positioning System (GPS), Global Information System (GIS), workstation-based image positioning, and cartographic map production systems to their advantage. Who then had imagined that the power of the desktop would in two decades be in the hands of millions inside mobile phones bulk produced in China.
And just as I was concluding this letter came news that the Mumbai Crime Branch on May 30 busted a telephone exchange racket in the Chembur area from where calls were made to transfer sensitive information related to the movement of defense and military personnel in J&K.
The spy network was trying to gather information about the situation in Ladakh using illegal Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) exchange. Three functional Chinese SIM boxes and one standby SIM box along with 191 SIM cards, laptop modem; antennas; batteries and connectors were recovered. The incident is obviously the direct result of the ongoing tensions ratcheted up by the Dragon in Ladakh.
Need more be said Modi ji? The reality is right before your eyes.
Om Namah Shivaye!
Sudhir Kumar Singh
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