Story behind science

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argument of security issues related to cellphone

The number of Internet users in China reached 632 million in June, with 46.9 percent of the population covered by the Web, and smartphones are the most frequently used tool to access the Internet, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. A smartphone may be the most convenient medium to reach the “virtual world”, but by using it a netizen exposes his/her personal information to theft.

Personal data, including text messages, contact lists and photographs, can be stolen from iPhones through techniques that Apple hadn’t revealed to users earlier. Apple acknowledged this fact earlier this week, but before that Jonathan Zdziarski, a researcher, demonstrated at a conference in the US how the company “collected” a surprisingly large volume of data from users for what it now says was analytical work meant to help engineers.

This is bad news for iPhone users in China, particularly government officials, because their personal data are vulnerable to theft and spying. This has prompted many people, including Fang Xingdong, founder of blogchina.com and an IT columnist, to urge officials to use domestic-brand smartphones instead of iPhones to protect their personal information. Fang has even said that important officials should be prohibited from using iPhones.

Security is a much greater issue than safety when it comes to the use of foreign-brand smartphones vis-a-vis personal computers, because more private information that can be related to national security are saved in officials’ phones. But there is no guarantee that domestic-brand phones will not have the same security issues, because the problem lies with the software system used in cell phones, not the cell phones themselves. And since China has not developed an independent software for smartphones, all domestic-brand phones (Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi) use Android developed by Google for the smart applications.

Moreover, since other foreign brands, like Samsung that has the largest share in China’s phone market, also use Android, there is no foolproof safeguard against security risks for smartphone users.

According to American media reports, the National Security Agency (exposed by Edward Snowden for its global surveillance program) calls the mobile software systems, including the iPhone and Android systems, “gold mines” of data resources.

The intelligence departments of the US and the UK started working together way back in 2007 to develop applications to spy on mobile phone users’ personal data, and the NSA raised the budget for the project from $204 million to $706 million. This indicates that the Android system is closely monitored by US intelligence departments. Therefore, even if Chinese civil servants switch from iPhones to other smartphones, they cannot avoid being monitored by foreign intelligence agencies, which could eventually become a security risk for the country.

Therefore, to secure its information network, China has no choice but to expedite the development of an independent software for smartphones. The security threat that iPhones (and other smartphones) pose is a warning for China to go in for more innovation. It can start doing so by spending more for the research and development of the IT sector.

The accumulation of capital and development of technologies are some of China’s advantages that can help propel the proposed project to develop indigenous software for smartphones toward success.

Media reports say that of the 1.47 billion phones sold in China last year, 870 million were smartphones, and 72 percent of those smartphones were Chinese brands. Besides, 75 percent of mobile phones sold across the world are made in China and Chinese smartphones control 33.8 percent of the global market. This enormous market scale provides a solid economic base for China to develop indigenous cell phone software.

And the government should provide preferential policies for Chinese companies that work to develop indigenous software for smartphones and come up with other innovative products. Only by offering favorable policies to such companies can the government motivate them to make technological progress that could help safeguard personal and national data.

The author is a professor at the School of International Trade and Economics, University of International Business and Economics, Beijing.

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