Banned apps told to disclose location of centres, data collection method

New Delhi: The ministry of electronics and information technology (Meity) has sought details about their operations, data collection practices and locations of operational centres from the owners of short video sharing platform Tik Tok and 58 other applications, mostly of Chinese origin, that India banned last week, officials familiar with the development said.

A questionnaire seeking the details was sent by the ministry to the parent companies of the apps on Wednesday so that more information can be collated as a follow-up to the ban, which came amid border tensions between India and China.

“The emails have been sent to them so that we can collate and analyse more details about the operations of the applications,” a Meity official said on condition of anonymity. “This is a part of the process under the IT Act.”

The government banned mobile applications such as TikTok, UC Browser and WeChat citing concerns that they were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order” amid military tensions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a violent brawl in Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh on June 15 that also left an unspecified number of Chinese casualties.

Information and Technology minister Ravi Shanker Prasad called the ban a “digital strike” on China. The operators of the applications will also appear in front of a panel to make their case against the ban, officials said.

An executive at the operator of the apps said on condition of anonymity that they had been given three weeks to respond to the questionnaire.

A Tik Tok spokesperson said the app’s operator was working to respond to the government “within the stipulated time frame.”

“We have been in compliance with the laws and regulations of the Government of India and will continue to cooperate, address their concerns and provide necessary clarification. Ensuring the data sovereignty, security and privacy of our users has always been and will continue to be a top priority for us,” the spokesperson said in a statement to HT.

India is particularly concerned that these applications could be compromising the data of Indian users, Hindustan Times reported on June 30. The 59 apps have been reported for “leaking data”, according to an IT ministry official who asked not to be named.

“All these apps have been reported to have been leaking data. Their malpractices have also been singled out by experts. They have been said to take location data, transfer files to servers in China. Moreover, the beauty apps, such as Beauty Plus and Selfie Camera have also been reported for being a threat as they contain pornographic content,” this person said.

Among the banned applications is the popular short-video streaming app TikTok, which has a wide following in India. TikTok, according to Bloomberg data, had nearly 200 million users in India as of January this year and had become one of the most prominent social media tools used by young Indians.

“We have asked for more information regarding where their centres are located, how they are collecting data and further details about their operations,” the Meity official mentioned in the first instance said.

The panel that will hear the representations from the owners of the apps will include an official from the home ministry, MEITY, Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, and the law ministry, under section 69A of the IT Act.

“The apps will have a chance to present their side of the story,” the second official cited above said.

According to independent data researcher Srinivas Kodali, the move to ban the apps was premature..

“The ministry should have first sought this information and then effected the ban,” Kodali said. “The investigation should have happened first.”

Kodali added that most apps, including those made in India, generally store data in the US as it is a cheaper option.

“It is likely that these apps stored data in China because it would have been cheaper for them,” he said. “The list, in any case, is selective as Chinese apps like PUBG {an online game} have not been included, despite repeated concerns and red flags raised about it.”

“Meity can block the apps because they pose a national security threat, but to ask questions is different since these applications don’t necessarily have to answer to them,” he added.

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