Passengers use smartphones while sitting on a platform at a railway station in Mumbai
The ban is the first time that India has ordered the mass removal of foreign apps © Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

India has banned 59 of China’s biggest mobile phone apps, including TikTok and WeChat, on the grounds that they pose a threat to the country’s security.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology accused the apps collectively of breaching the privacy of Indian users and mining their data.

“The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India [ . . . ] is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures,” it said.

Apple said it was reviewing the situation but that it was likely to comply with any order to remove the apps from its App Store. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ban is the first time that India has ordered the mass removal of foreign apps and comes after the death of 20 Indian soldiers earlier this month in a brutal brawl with People’s Liberation Army troops, an incident that has inflamed anti-China sentiment.

“I’ve not seen something at this scale,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation in New Delhi. “A precedent exists only towards blocking smaller websites and blogs with secessionist writings.”

It will come as a particular blow to TikTok, which has more than 200m users in India and counts it as its biggest overseas market. The viral social video app had already been temporarily banned in April last year for “degrading culture and encouraging pornography”.

A TikTok spokesperson said: “Our team of around 2,000 employees in India is committed to working with the government to demonstrate our dedication to user security and our commitment to the country overall.”

In a separate subsequent statement, TikTok India said that it “continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and [has] not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese government. Further if we are requested to in the future we would not do so.”

For years, India and China had looked past long-simmering border issues to focus on deepening economic ties, but the latest violence has forced the dispute back into the spotlight.

New Delhi has delayed the clearance of Chinese imports at ports and airports, frustrating manufacturers of mobile phones and other telecoms equipment that rely on imported Chinese components.

“It sends a strong message that Indian government walks the talk and will not think twice before taking a drastic and major step such as this,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder of consultancy Convergence Catalyst, speaking from Bangalore.

“It is a political narrative, tied into the national security rhetoric and nationalism at a higher level.”

Apprehension over Chinese investment in India had been growing even before the border dispute. In April, New Delhi tightened foreign investment rules to block “opportunistic takeovers” by its neighbours, fearing that stressed Indian companies would be targeted as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the economy.

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