The revelation that Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and China’s richest man, is a member of the ruling Communist Party might have caused little consternation a few years ago, before President Xi Jinping inaugurated a period of ever closer and more intrusive ties between the Chinese state and private enterprises. Although these ties, and the surveillance state they support, primarily affect people within China, they have serious implications for the security of other nations, considering China’s dominant role in the manufacture of many high technology products. Extending the argument beyond China, as national security is threatened in novel ways in a globalised, technology-driven world, it is worth asking if India is paying sufficient attention to these present and emerging threats.

Two long, investigative articles published last October highlighted the dangers of Chinese espionage. Garrett Graff in Wired told the story of Su Bin, a successful businessman based in Canada who ran an aviation technology firm while helping Chinese hackers steal plans for advanced aircraft like Boeing’s C-17 military transport plane. Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley published a sensational piece in Bloomberg about Chinese attempts to infiltrate top global companies using a chip the size of a grain of rice attached to motherboards used in servers.

As a precaution against such attacks, the United States has an unspoken ban on Huawei products for government officials. Its distrust of the company stems from the fact that Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, is a former officer of the Peoples’ Liberation Army. The Wall Street Journal’s Kate O’Keefe reported last week that the American government is trying to talk allies out of partnering with Huawei, which is currently the largest manufacturer of telecom equipment in the world, and the second largest smartphone manufacturer by units sold, having surpassed Apple earlier this year.

The US government is particularly concerned about the coming rollout of 5G infrastructure, a space in which Huawei leaves its competitors in the dust. The problem is that 5G, while allowing exponentially faster transfers of data, is also more vulnerable to interference. In O’Keefe’s words, “Today’s cellular-tower equipment… is largely isolated from the ‘core’ systems that transfer much of a network’s voice and data traffic. But in the 5G networks telecom carriers are preparing to install, cellular-tower hardware will take over some tasks from the core – and that hardware could potentially be used to disrupt the core via cyberattacks.”

If China has emerged as a major threat in the area of cyberwar and espionage, the US has occupied that space for a long time. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald revealed how US spooks planted backdoors in products sold around the world by Cisco Systems, “enabling the NSA [National Security Agency] to observe emails and browsing activities as they happen, down to the keystroke”. Snowden also exposed a joint Anglo-American operation that stole encryption keys from the Dutch firm Gemalto, then the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM cards, allowing spies to listen in on conversations without approval or assistance from local courts, foreign governments and private firms.

Foreign technology

Considering this history, I remain shocked that one of the Indian government’s signature programmes over the last decade, the development of Aadhaar infrastructure, relies on source code purchased from a foreign entity, the French Safran Group (which bought over the original American vendor, L-1 Identity Solutions). How is it that a nation renowned for its export of IT services proved incapable of producing the de-duplication technology required for a programme affecting every Indian citizen? However shameful that is, and however troubling the examples of American and Chinese espionage alluded to in this article, the true hazard of foreign technology does not lie in the potential abrogation of privacy. That is because the greatest threat to the privacy of citizens usually resides in the actions of their own governments and investigative agencies.

National security is a different matter entirely. Recall that during the Kargil war, the United States, which owns the Global Positioning System and operates it through the US Air Force, denied India access to important field data. The refusal led to the development of the indigenous Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System. It has taken two decades to put all the components in place, and the system is not properly functional yet, but when it begins working it will be a necessary step in the indigenisation of India’s security infrastructure.

Sadly, the present administration appears not to feel that self-sufficiency in all sectors of defence technology is imperative, and has chosen, instead, to move into the orbit of the United States in the belief that a protective umbrella will guarantee our security. We have been treated to the depressing sight of a defence minister running down our own weapons production capacity. It happened when Nirmala Sitharaman, faced with the scandal of offset contracts related to the purchase of Rafale fighter aircraft, questioned the capability of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to produce the French fighters. She blamed the previous Congress-led regime for failing to improve HAL’s efficiency and quality control but, four years into BJP rule, her words rang hollow. The shortcomings of previous administrations provide no cover for the current government’s disinterest in enhancing India’s indigenous defence capacities.

We buy, at exorbitant cost, the latest weapons from nations like the United States, Russia, France, Israel and Sweden, believing this brings us closer to the goal of being a recognised superpower, but which superpower in history depended on imported weaponry? It is foolish to rely on foreign technology at a time when global alliances are so fluid. If we end up in a conflict with an ally of a nation that has sold us advanced weapons, would those weapons be reliable?

Make in India

This question takes us back to the issue of hacking and espionage with which I began. There have been persistent rumours that certain sophisticated weapons systems are armed with a kill switch, allowing the seller to render them useless in an emergency. The most likely candidate for the use of a kill switch in combat was Israel’s attack on a Syrian nuclear installation in 2007, when Syrian radar malfunctioned for mysterious reasons. In another theatre, the Falklands war of 1982, France is said by some to have provided the UK with secret codes to counter missiles France had sold Argentina. Whether or not that is true, the French certainly refused Argentina’s request for a further supply of Exocet missiles, even denying the missiles to Peru in fear that they would end up in Argentine hands.

The only way India can possess a reliable supply of weaponry is to conceive, design and build those weapons in India, using technology transfers, reverse engineering, and our own innovation. I understand this is far easier said than done. It is something the country has attempted for decades, and repeatedly come up short. But let’s not fool ourselves: there is no pride in flaunting foreign weapons systems available to most bidders, and throwing money at international vendors or cowering in the shadow of the United States will never provide us the security we seek.