Indian border troops using Chinese mobile networks, Intelligence agencies warn govt

Indian border troopers posted along the China border in Leh have been left “no choice” but to use networks supplied by Chinese telecom operators

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Dhairya Maheshwari

Indian border troopers posted along the China border in Leh have been using networks supplied by Chinese telecom operators, India’s intelligence agencies have warned the government.

It is understood that due to the difficulty of Indian mobile operators in penetrating the higher reaches of the India-China border, soldiers are left with “no choice” but to “manually switch” to Chinese telecom service providers, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The poor network coverage of Indian operators in Leh and surrounding areas is an “open secret.” The coverage capability gets worse at the border outposts, which are located at even higher altitudes and in absence of any significant telecom infrastructure on the Indian side.

The intelligence agencies are believed to have been made aware of the prevailing situation by the Indian troops themselves. According to sources, the coverage of some of China’s state-backed telecommunication giants is “excellent” in the border regions, with Chinese telecom towers having a network reach that covers villages and border outposts on the Indian side.

“There is also a tie-up between Airtel and China Telecom, which facilitates switching of networks,” point out sources.

It is understood that “Airtel (China)“ is the operator that shows up on the network selection panel at the time of manually switching the networks.

According to Indian troopers who have reported the issue, being off the grid for extended periods of time due to border postings forces them to look for alternative networks, just so they could stay in touch with their families.

However, intelligence officials have informed the government that such temporary switch of networks facilitates “malicious” cyber-activity from Beijing, as it provides them a “gateway” to enter our servers and other critical cyber infrastructure.

“They are far ahead of us as far as ramping up the border infrastructure is concerned. “They have erected mobile towers, built surveillance outposts and power stations, all with the ultimate objective of cyber surveillance and settling civilians at their side of the disputed border,” say sources.

Cyber experts have in the past expressed concerns that at “least 35%” of the cyber attacks taking place from China are directed towards Indian systems.

Intelligence agencies have also expressed concerns over the possibility of the Chinese setting-up “Wi-fi hotspots” so that they could be used by Indian troops at border outposts. “It is a real possibility that this might also be happening,” cyber experts working with the intelligence agencies have warned.

It seems part of a well-calibrated strategy to “lure” Indian soldiers and through that, gain access to critical information stored in our defence and other government servers.

Cyber experts say that the entire episode is reflective of the loopholes in India’s cyber-security situation. Concerns have been expressed in the past over at “least 35%” of the cyber attacks taking place from China being directed towards Indian systems. While India’s cyber capabilities have been significantly lacking to deal with this cyber onslaught till date, the government has been working to device a mechanism to protect India’s cyber-sovereignty.

Indian military announced on Tuesday, January 15,that it was finally setting-up a cyber agency under the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) to deal with threats in the cyberspace.

“It will be an inter-service agency, not purely Army, functioning under the IDS and they will be looking after all the threats in the cyber-domain Gen MM Naravane, GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, said on Tuesday, January 15.

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