Endangered 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, there is a covert attempt to create inroads that can be exploited to undermine the other. Once the realm of strictly intelligence agencies, the information age has brought upon the globalized world the means to easily exploit and plot the adversary without even physically crossing its borders.
Something so sinister 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 all data generated by a user. What does that mean for the 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 anonymized data at a larger level about the number of users, their sessions, approximate location, type of device and browser they use. This seems superior until you see the exhaustive list of parameters collected by Google.
Google Analytics tracks events triggered by your interaction with the website. When you click on an ad, even when you just look at an ad, when you remove an app, when you first open an app. Even when you delete or remove app data on your device or something as simple as scrolling, knows and collects Google it. Apart from your interaction with the website, Google not only knows, but also forwards to the website or app your age, city, device brand, device model, etc. Google ensures that the data forwarded is anonymized, but only because your information is anonymized when forwarding will not necessarily safeguard your privacy.
The myth of anonymity
In 2017, those who grew up with Pokémon, a popular game franchise, rejoiced when it released its mobile game, Pokémon Go, in which players would use augmented reality to participate. The game was developed on top of Google Maps. The premise was to give users places to go where they could catch Pokémon. Sound like a fun way to get the players to touch grass? The Chinese government disagrees. The Chinese government quickly moved to ban the game’s release 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., released a map in November 2017. After each run, Strava generates a heat map that not only tracks the route the user took, but also their effort with a color. So if you ran through a stretch it would be shown as red while the distinctive uphill section would obviously be green. A worldwide map, of all users and their races, would surely be a motivation for everyone. It will also be a threat to national security. And that’s exactly what happened. In Syria, Afghanistan and Djibouti, soldiers at various US military bases stayed fit 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 anonymized data with a map, it revealed several US military bases. Zooming in on these 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’re using? With Chinese manufacturers undercutting the industry with cheap players, along with custom operating systems, custom system apps, etc., one begs the question, what is the threat that these mobile phones pose to the users and the nation at large. In today’s globalized world, it will be impossible to cut off any country let alone a technology giant like China; but we can pick and choose who we trust. In the field of mobile phones, the only major competitor is the South Korean giant Samsung.
Since 2020, Indian agencies have been investigating various Chinese apps that have been running scams in India. Many of these would lend money and use extortion to get much more than the agreed amount. These apps first took permission to view files, and then downloaded the entire user data to a server. Many of the users saved private data including private photos that they were threatened with. Because the app also collected their entire contact list, the scammers threatened to share all those photos with their entire contact list.
Many now believe that India is not only lagging behind China by a decade, but may be sliding towards digital colonization. China has always set its sights on 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 open up the population to AI in a sustainable way, because many wonder if it will attack and eat up the nation from within.
The author is a defense and aerospace analyst.
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