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‘Creative Imagination’: Govt Denies Report on New Security Testing for Smartphones

The Central government has denied a news report by Reuters stating that it is likely to force smartphones makers to permit the removal of pre-installed applications and mandate screening of major operating system updates under proposed new security rules, calling it “unfettered creative imagination”.

Sharing the report on Twitter, Union Minister of Electronics and Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar said that the report was “plain wrong” and based on “lack of understanding” of the ongoing consultations between the government and industry players on mobile security guidelines.

“This story is plain wrong – there is no “security testing” or “crackdown” as story suggests,” Chandrasekhar wrote on Twitter. “Story is based on lack of understanding perhaps n unfettered creative imagination that is based an ongoing consultation process btwn Ministry n Industry on mobile security guidelines of BIS Standard IS17737 (Part-3) 2021.”

“@GoI_MeitY is 100% committed to Ease of doing Business n is totally focussed on growing Electronics Mfg to touch USD 300Bln by 2026,” he added.

The report by Reuters on Tuesday cited two  two people and a government document, and stated that India’s IT ministry is considering new rules, details of which have not been previously reported, amid concerns about spying and abuse of user data.

“Pre-installed apps can be a weak security point and we want to ensure no foreign nations, including China, are exploiting it. It’s a matter of national security,” a senior government official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

The new rules would likely extend launch timelines in the world’s No.2 smartphone market and lead to losses in business from pre-installed apps for players including Samsung, Xiaomi, Vivo, and Apple, as per the report.

The issue of data breaches and risks related to the use of Chinese mobile apps and phones was first highlighted in 2020. After the Galwan Valley clash, the Indian government banned several Chinese mobile apps. The government had banned 59 Chinese apps, including popular ones like TikTok, WeChat, and ShareIt, to protect the privacy of its citizens. The list got further long with more apps being added in the past few months. But these apps have come back in India under new identities, posing a significant threat to the security and privacy of Indian users.

Globally, several countries have already imposed curbs on the use of technology from Chinese firms like Huawei and Hikvision fearing that Beijing could use them to spy on foreign citizens. However, the Chinese government denied such claims.

At present, many smartphones have pre-installed apps that cannot be removed, such as Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi’s app store GetApps, Samsung’s payment app Samsung Pay mini and iPhone maker Apple’s browser Safari.

What the Reuters Report Says

As per the report, smartphone makers will have to provide an uninstall option and new models will be checked for compliance by a lab authorized by the Bureau of Indian Standards agency under the new rules, the two people with knowledge of the plan said.

The government is also considering mandating screening of every major operating system update before it is rolled out to consumers, one of the people said.

A February 8 confidential government record of an IT ministry meeting, seen by Reuters, states, “Majority of smartphones used in India are having pre-installed Apps/Bloatware which poses serious privacy/information security issue(s)”.

The closed-door meeting was attended by representatives from Xiaomi, Samsung, Apple and Vivo, the meeting record shows.

The government has decided to give smartphone makers a year to comply once the rule comes into effect, the date for which has not been fixed yet, the document added.

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