The Indian government has banned over 50 Chinese-made smartphone apps including popular social title TikTok over concerns they may be stealing user data.
The 59 titles also include Twitter-like platform Weibo and WhatsApp clone WeChat, as well as a range of other browser, camera, news, entertainment and communications apps.
A government statement noted that the decision was taken due to fears that the apps were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.”
These concerns were linked to fears over users’ data security and privacy.
“The Ministry of Information Technology has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India,” it said.
Although the concerns may be genuine, the timing appears to be deliberate, coinciding with a period of heightened tensions between the two Asian giants after recent border clashes left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
According to the BBC, India is TikTok’s biggest foreign market with an estimated 120 million users.
However, the app has come in for criticism not only in India. In the US, the Pentagon banned its use by soldiers early this year on security concerns related to its Beijing-based owner ByteDance.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has launched an inquiry into whether the user data TikTok collects represents a national security risk. If this becomes a full-blown investigation it could even put the sale of the title, which was originally a US app called Musical.ly, in jeopardy.
Concerns also swirl over the extent to which TikTok is influenced by Beijing, after it appeared to censor content linked to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
ProPrivacy digital privacy expert, Ray Walsh, argued that although New Delhi’s decision was probably taken for geopolitical reasons, it doesn’t mean it has no basis in privacy best practice.
“The decision will drastically reduce the amount of data passing from Indian citizens to Chinese authorities, via seemingly innocuous and hugely popular apps such as TikTok. These apps are known to harvest huge amounts of data from their users, resulting in covert international surveillance for the Chinese government,” he argued.
“Although the ban is likely to be controversial among Indian citizens, it may well cause other world leaders to consider whether they could or should impose similar sanctions.”
It remains to be seen how easy it is to enforce such a ban in practice.