India Turns To China To Fight Cyberspies

The Indian government has put Chinese mobile giant Huawei in charge of inspecting imported smartphone equipment for secret spyware. But who's spying on whom?

Spy Vs. SpyThe Indian government is teaming up with Chinese tech giant Huawei to search imported smartphones and communications devices for signs of malware and spyware. However, some Indians are nervous because of Huawei's close ties to the People's Liberation Army and fear that the firm could be complicit in cyberattacks.

One journalist, Joji Thomas Philip of India's Economic Times, calls it “rather like letting the fox in to guard the henhouse.”

Huawei recently opened a research lab at Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science that will be expanded shortly. But opening a joint Indian-Chinese cybersecurity lab also presents problems for Huawei. The mobile-phone provider, which was named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies of 2010, will be operating in an environment where it will be easy for Indians to observe Huawei's techniques and corporate goings-on.

The lab was reportedly opened by request of Indian intelligence services, who fear that foreign governments and corporations could use mobile-phone technology for espionage purposes. The lab's tender requires it to test all imported mobile phones and handsets and equipment for built-in spyware and malware. It is not clear if the laboratory will also be involved in the testing of smartphone applications and for-purchase software for conventional mobile phones.

The text of the agreement specifically states that “In order for (the Indian Institute of Science) to perform certain studies in respect of telecom equipment, IISc shall be requiring detailed understanding about various features, standards and related documentation. Huawei […] agrees to share some information, knowledge, software, hardware and equipments with IISc for its studies.”

India lacks any homegrown mobile provider with the abilities necessary to screen all tech imported into the country. Other foreign providers, interestingly, declined to get involved with the Indian project over fear of violating intellectual property laws.

Huawei, meanwhile, is trying to calm fears in the Indian press that their Bangalore lab will be a front for a spy shop. Ross Gan, worldwide head of corporate communications for the firm, told the Indian Express:

We adopt an open attitude towards security concerns and believe that the brand will overcome any misgivings. […] Our common policy is that ‘you show us the hoops and we will jump through them for you’. Over the last decade, Huawei has invested in countries all over the world with tremendous success.

Fear of Chinese spyware embedded in computers and mobile phones has been a running theme in the Indian tech industry. In April 2010, Indian officials banned Chinese mobile providers from importing any Huawei handsets over fears of embedded spyware. The ban was later rescinded after Huawei and another banned firm, ZTE, provided the Indian government with access to their embedded source code.

The Huawei lab in Bangalore was not subjected to a security review for employees before opening, despite the sensitive nature of the laboratory's work. Huawei sold approximately $1.2 billion worth of handsets in India last year, in spite of the ban.

[Image: Flickr user Fire Monkey Fish]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

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