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Monday, March 8, 2021

Prying eyes of China over Zoom meetings

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Rajiv Saxena
Rajiv Saxena
Rajiv Prakash Saxena is a graduate of UBC, Vancouver, Canada. He is an authority on eCommerce, eProcurement, eSign, DSCs and Internet Security. He has been a Technology Bureaucrat and Thought leader in the Government. He has 8 books and few UN assignments. He wrote IT Policies of Colombia and has implemented projects in Jordan, Rwanda, Nepal and Mauritius. Rajiv writes, speaks, mentors on technology issues in Express Computers, ET, National frontier and TV debates. He worked and guided the following divisions: Computer Aided Design (CAD), UP: MP: Maharashtra and Haryana State Coordinator to setup NICNET in their respective Districts of the State, TradeNIC, wherein a CD containing list of 1,00,000 exporters was cut with a search engine and distributed to all Indian Embassies and High Commissions way back in the year 1997 (It was an initiative between NIC and MEA Trade Division headed by Ms. Sujatha Singh, IFS, India’s Ex Foreign Secretary), Law Commission, Ministry of Law & Justice, Department of Legal Affairs, Department of Justice, Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), Ministry of Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA), National Jail Project, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Commission for Minorities (NCM), National Data Centres (NDC), NIC National Infrastructure, Certifying Authority (CA) to issue Digital Signature Certificates (DSCs), eProcurement, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs (MPA), Lok Sabha and its Secretariat (LSS) and Rajya Sabha and its Secretariat (RSS) along with their subordinate and attached offices like Directorate of Estate (DoE), Land & Development Office (L&DO), National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC), Central Public Works Department (CPWD), National Capital Regional Planning Board (NCRPB), Housing & Urban Development Corporation (HUDO), National Building Organisation (NBO), Delhi Development Authority (DDA), BMPTC and many others.

During the Covid – 19, pandemic period and ‘work from home’ or WFH in common lingo, Zoom became a powerful tool for all citizens, from all walks of life, from old friend ‘addas’, to Deepawali Celebrations, to wedding video streaming, or death condolence get together, every other meeting was happening on Video Conference. Every other day people used the word zoom, interoperable to say that they did a video meeting.

Zoom is a cloud based Video Conferencing System (VCS), which combines online meetings, group messaging, online classroom meetings and global online seminars with the ability to screen share and annotate on the fly in single easy to use platform. Zoom is compatible with PC, MAC, iOS, Android, Blackberry, Linux and H 323 / SIP Video Conferencing systems.

Zoom offers a full – featured basic plan for free with unlimited number of meetings. Both Basic and Pro plans allow for unlimited 1 to 1 meetings, each meeting can have a duration of 24 hours maximum. The basic plan has a 40 minutes time limit each meeting with three or more total participants.

Eric Yuan is the founder of Zoom, a video communications tool that went public in April 2019. He was previously a manager of WebEx at Cisco, which acquired the video conferencing company in the year 2007. Born in Mainland China, Yuan moved to Silicon Valley in the year 1997, after eight failed attempts to obtain a US visa. Finally he reached the Silicon Valley. Zoom is trading around US$ 420 due to its earning potential.

The application has been banned in India by the Government, over concerns of spying and the safety of 130 crore Indians. Other video calling apps that can be used in the country include Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Meet and more. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has warned the Zoom app users that the video conferencing tool is not safe official usage. The government has reissued new guidelines after many users have complained about instances of leaked passwords and hackers hijacking video calls midway through conferences. Still this IT tool has become very popular and every day Zoom meetings are held across the world.

Curious cases do occur and an interesting episode occurred. ‘An awesome thing just happened. I was speaking at a webinar on the Indo Pacific and the Quad with a power point presentation. After a couple of slides the entire presentation was disfigured by red lines scratching out the entire text. Apparently this attack on my ppt originated in China so the Zoom meeting was being monitored online’. A ppt being disfigured by the Chinese. On being probed further, my friend mentioned “It was a PowerPoint presentation being made on a webinar organised by the GLA University Mathura. I was one of the panellists along with Ambassador Deepak Vohra, Prof Rajan Kumar and two leading journalists. After I was through two slides, these red lines started appearing across all the other slides as if being scratched out with a red pen making it impossible to read further. One of the participants did say that this happens when being monitored. This meeting was closely monitored by Chinese to deter the speakers avoid anti-China narrative. Hackers are selling over 5,00,000 Zoom credentials in the ‘dark web’ for a nominal price. Zoom bombing is very common in many meetings.

The nation has been advised by the government to avoid zoom as far as possible. India has other Indian secure options. India already has an application for video conferencing solution, developed by Indians and an award announced by MeitY, was awarded to PeopleLink InstaVC. All data will be hosted on the Indian data farms, unlike Zoom, where data is kept on data centres location in the Mainland China. Zoom ownership is US based, though its servers are located in China. The webinar sessions are encrypted and zoom claims that the VC sessions are safe. Some people get registered from fake Ids for the webinar and they disrupt the proceedings and post dirty messages during the webinar. The zoom webinars are not fully encrypted and China has a law which force the webinar hosts to give their symmetric encryption keys. Other problems faced during Zoom meetings are:

User experience in scheduling – Every time a user goes for export to a Google calendar, it makes the user re-authenticate the account then opens the wrong calendar as the user is logged into multiple Google accounts;

Recording editing – Could use some more robust tools for editing a recorded video / audio before export; and

Air time recording – Does not automatically cut out muted segments with only one participant in recordings.

Early this month, the Chinese – only website of Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co, the company monitoring foreign targets, was pulled down soon after The Indian Express approached it for comments. What kind of data has it collected on the targets, what does it mean when it says it’s engaged in hybrid warfare, what’s the cause for concern? Here are the key questions answered:

What does Zhenhua Data do?

It targets individuals and institutions in politics, government, business, technology, media, and civil society. Claiming to work with Chinese intelligence, military and security agencies, Zhenhua monitors the subject’s digital footprint across social media platforms, maintains an “information library,” which includes content not just from news sources, forums, but also from papers, patents, bidding documents, even positions of recruitment. Significantly, it builds a “relational database”, which records and describes associations between individuals, institutions and information. Collecting such massive data and weaving in public or sentiment analysis around these targets, Zhenhua offers “threat intelligence services.”

China always observes key important citizens of the national importance and keeps tracks of them and monitor their activities, research and public statements. Their video is analysed with care and artificial intelligence tools are used to dig deep into their emotions and frame of mind. It is better that world must prefer not to use any technology which has been developed in China or Chinese PLA supported companies. Their movements are tracked and all their anti-China tirade is watched and analysed very carefully.

The hybrid war is going on day in and day out and even Zoom meetings are not spared. My friend is an authority on maritime security and he is watched for his public discourse.

It’s not only Uncle Sam watching, but Grandfather Xi, also keeps a track of important people.

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Rajiv Saxena
Rajiv Saxena
Rajiv Prakash Saxena is a graduate of UBC, Vancouver, Canada. He is an authority on eCommerce, eProcurement, eSign, DSCs and Internet Security. He has been a Technology Bureaucrat and Thought leader in the Government. He has 8 books and few UN assignments. He wrote IT Policies of Colombia and has implemented projects in Jordan, Rwanda, Nepal and Mauritius. Rajiv writes, speaks, mentors on technology issues in Express Computers, ET, National frontier and TV debates. He worked and guided the following divisions: Computer Aided Design (CAD), UP: MP: Maharashtra and Haryana State Coordinator to setup NICNET in their respective Districts of the State, TradeNIC, wherein a CD containing list of 1,00,000 exporters was cut with a search engine and distributed to all Indian Embassies and High Commissions way back in the year 1997 (It was an initiative between NIC and MEA Trade Division headed by Ms. Sujatha Singh, IFS, India’s Ex Foreign Secretary), Law Commission, Ministry of Law & Justice, Department of Legal Affairs, Department of Justice, Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), Ministry of Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA), National Jail Project, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Commission for Minorities (NCM), National Data Centres (NDC), NIC National Infrastructure, Certifying Authority (CA) to issue Digital Signature Certificates (DSCs), eProcurement, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs (MPA), Lok Sabha and its Secretariat (LSS) and Rajya Sabha and its Secretariat (RSS) along with their subordinate and attached offices like Directorate of Estate (DoE), Land & Development Office (L&DO), National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC), Central Public Works Department (CPWD), National Capital Regional Planning Board (NCRPB), Housing & Urban Development Corporation (HUDO), National Building Organisation (NBO), Delhi Development Authority (DDA), BMPTC and many others.

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