The report of Indian Express that a Shenzhen based information technology firm Zhenhua Data Information Technology Company was tracking over 10,000 Indians in the fields of politics, government, business, technology, media and civil society has not come as a surprise. There had been several reports suggesting that China was spying on the Indian top leaders, senior civil and military officials and businessmen in the past. China was reported to be planting backdoor tools in their exported equipment used in Internet of Things to collect metadata of targets and was also obtaining/stealing such data from MNCs.
In 2013 American cybersecurity firm Mandiant published a report on China’s cyber-espionage operations by Unit 61398- a military cyber-hacker unit undercover. In 2015 an authentic report published by Singapore based cybersecurity firm FireEye gave graphic details of the functioning of an anonymous group dubbed as APT30 that was primarily focusing on the data of businesses, governments and military operations in India and other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries.
Open sources if properly analysed can provide invaluable information about targets. All intelligence agencies collect inputs from open sources called OSINT to get a better picture of the adversary’s policies and thinking. Often extremely useful information is obtained through the open sources. After World war II, the US learnt through an open-source that the Soviet Union had acquired nuclear weapons while its own assessment was that it would take about 10 years to achieve that capability.
The more important aspect is the motive for the collection of this huge data by China. While the collection of data from social media and open sources may appear an innocuous endeavour, this can have a devious design, given the Chinese strategy of weaponizing such data for use in influence operations in target countries. The digging out huge data available in open sources follows drawing linkages and contextualising it, which could help in understanding the thinking, likes and dislikes of key decision-makers, opinion shapers, social groups, business houses etc. These can be exploited for perception management through influence operations. By tracking the behaviour of the targets, their ‘psychographic profiles’ can be prepared. Not only an individual’s digital footprints on social media platforms are collected but also from other open sources to obtain a complete picture as far as possible. Besides the individual profile, ‘relational database’ can be constructed that records associations between individuals, institutions, and information. These are important to formulate strategies to target groups or institutions for influence operations. The use of Artificial Intelligence helps in quickly working out effective strategies for manipulation of the targets to change their perceptions.
The influence operations are meticulously planned. Planned narratives are being developed and disseminated to change the thought process of the population through various social media platforms. India is one of the fastest-growing market of social media users but unfortunately due to lack of awareness, laws and mechanism to check the spread of rumours, fake news and manipulated videos, it easy to manipulate Indian population. Information is so heavily bombarded with aggregated impressions through social media platforms that it becomes almost impossible not to be influenced by the constant flow of impressions being made with images, headlines, disinformation and fake videos. The attacks are designed to penetrate the victim’s systems and to spread false narratives, disinformation, and discord. The resulting conflict of facts and clashing of opinions degrades rational thought process and confuse the targets which in turn harms democracy and adversely impacts national security.
Such data can serve a range of objectives. The ‘cyber-led influence operations’ allow to address all the targets en masse and providing them with visual clips/ videos for effect. Influence operations have intruded into the election systems and have considerable ability to influence voters. They can also create violence by placing highly inflammatory speeches or doctored videos. In our recent past, all the violent incidents have been significantly influenced by the contents circulated on social media platforms. They can cause panic in the economic sphere through misinformation. In addition, by changing the perceptions of influential groups and political parties, favourable decisions can be manipulated or create a situation in which the decision-making process gets paralysed. Such data can also be used to blackmail individuals forcing them to do certain things which may not be legal or against the national interest.
China had understood the significance of influence operations on common people during the Communist Revolution itself. During the Mao era, there had been continuous use of mass propaganda campaigns to legitimise the state and the policies of leaders. There are several re-education camps presently in China to brain-wash minorities or those who are opposed to the CCP. China was first to map the contours of ‘Hybrid Warfare’. In 1999, in the PLA’s publication, two army officers pointed out the shift of focus from military to economic, political and technological spheres that led to the adoption of the concept of “No Contact War” i.e. defeating the adversaries without coming into direct contact. With the dawn of cyber age with social media platforms, it was not surprising for CCP to put them to its use for changing the perceptions of their targets. In 2003, the Chinese strategy for systematic use of modern propaganda was crystallised in the form of “Three Warfares” comprising psychological, media and legal dimensions. This is based on Sun Tzu’s concept that ‘supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.’
There is no doubt that what the Zhenhua was doing at the behest of the Chinese state which has sinister designs. The targets include key leaders, senior civil and military officers and big industrial companies. Mining of this data would provide with enhanced capability for launching cyber-led influence operations. China could use this form of warfare to achieve its objectives of demoralising the population and opinion shapers in India through disinformation and destroy their will to oppose the Chinese policies. China could seek to create doubts in the current regime’s approach, foment anti-leadership sentiments and attempt to diminish the will to fight. Such possibilities exist which can be very harmful in the present context. Dragon knows the value of influence operations.
While this act may not be considered illegal, the transfer of data to a hostile country is a cause for concern. Its use could have serious implications for national security. The current rules do not provide action against the collection of information openly available. This needs to be addressed at the earliest through a legal framework. China has enacted the cybersecurity law in 2017 that allows Chinese authorities to conduct spot-checks on a company’s network operations. Our security and intelligence agencies should also be empowered to investigate such activities. Moreover, the differences in personal data and non-personal data for the purpose of protection must be done away with as even the anonymised data can be harmful.
While the Government of India has formed an Expert Committee to look into this issue, we need to develop robust capabilities to deal with influence operations. It is strongly suggested that as influence operations would continue by our adversaries, an efficient system should be established for proactive surveillance and neutralisation of such efforts. Intelligence agencies should be tasked to investigate Chinese strategies, identify their targets and assess the impact. This should be followed by countermeasures designed by experts to neutralise the adverse impact. For deterrence, a declaratory policy may be announced that such activities would attract severe punishment. The use of foreign equipment should be completely banned and greater support should be given to indigenisation.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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