India ‘Considers’ Mandatory Smartphone Security Screening

The Indian government is reportedly considering new security rules that could force smartphone makers to allow the removal of preinstalled apps and mandate the screening of major operating system updates.

The move would be a major escalation of restrictions on smartphone software in India that followed a deadly June 2020 border clash with China, and which primarily targets Chinese smartphone makers and app developers.

The tensions have led to more than 300 Chinese apps being banned in India, including TikTok, with an dozens of betting and lending apps banned last month.

Indian authorities have also put pressure on the Chinese smartphone makers such as Xiaomi, Vivo and Huawei that dominate its market, launching probes into the firms and last year raiding the offices of Xiaomi and Vivo on money laundering allegations.

Spy fears

India’s IT ministry is considering the latest rules due to concerns that user data could be used for spying or other abusive purposes, according to a Reuters report citing an unnamed senior government official.

“Pre-installed apps can be a weak security point and we want to ensure no foreign nations, including China, are exploiting it,” the official is quoted as saying. “It’s a matter of national security.”

The rules would reportedly require smartphone makers to include an uninstall option with compliance being checked by a lab authorised by the Bureau of Indian Standards.

The government is also considering screening all major operating system updates before they are released to the public.

Screening

Reuters said a closed-door meeting on the issue held last month was attended by Xiaomi, Samsung, Apple and Vivo.

Phone makers would reportedly be given a year to comply after the rule comes into effect, the date of which has not yet been decided.

Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo account for nearly half of India’s smartphone market, with Samsung holding 20 percent and Apple 3 percent.

The rule could mean delays for product launches in India, with Reuters saying it takes about 21 days for a smartphone and its parts to be government-tested for safety compliance.

A number of countries have imposed restrictions on technology imported from China, including 5G equipment made by Huawei and more recently the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok.

Security restrictions

The UK prime minister has said the government may follow the lead of the US and the European Commission in banning the TikTok app from government phones and devices.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat told Times Radio on Tuesday that he had asked the National Cyber Security Centre to ensure that smartphones are not being used as “spyware”.

“What we need to do is we need to make sure that our phones are not spyware but useful tools for us,” he said.

Asked whether the UK might impose a complete ban on TikTok, he said, “I’m not going to give you an answer until I know what the risks are.”

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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