Chinese Army rations use of wearables over security fears

Country's leading military newspaper warns over 'risk' of tracking to reveal military secrets.

Chinese Army rations use of wearables over security fears
Chinese Army rations use of wearables over security fears

Soldiers in the People's Liberation Army of China have been warned against using ‘wearables' amid the force's concerns over security. The country's military newspaper has said that it wants to restrict the possibility of cyber-security loopholes arising from technology devices manufactured overseas.

Although no specific brands have been named, the timing of this announcement comes close after the launch of the Apple iWatch. The new wristwatch from Apple has been available in nine countries including the UK and China since April 24 this year, although a substantial order delay is affecting both markets.

NBC News suggests that these concerns have spiralled after an individual solider in Eastern China was given a smartwatch as a gift. The soldier tried to take a picture of his colleagues, but was spotted and stopped by a superior officer.

Wearables that synchronise with desktops, tablets and smartphones offer a potential network-linked route to external hacking, although the technology itself is so new that reported cases are limited, for now.

According to NBC, “Last year, China's main broadcaster carried a report warning that the iPhone's location-tracking functions could pose a ‘national security threat', a report which Apple has since denied.”

This story report originates from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Daily. The publication describes itself as the official military newspaper of the People's Republic of China and has been established since 1956.  According to EastView.com, it acts as the authoritative media of the Chinese People's Liberation Army to release military news and comprehensive military-related information.

The PLA Daily's translated ‘decree' is featured on the BBC News technology section as follows, “The use of wearables with Internet access, location information and voice-calling functions should be considered a violation of confidential regulations when used by military personnel."

Several ‘teaching materials' and warnings have apparently been disseminated through the Chinese military to bring this message home.

"The moment a soldier puts on a device that can record high-definition audio and video, take photos and process and transmit data, it's very possible for him or her to be tracked or to reveal military secrets," writes the PLA Daily.

UK parallels?

The UK's Ministry of Defence is not openly clear on its policy on military personnel carrying wearables while in active service. The UK government's Innovate UK technology strategy board is currently investing up to £210,000 to encourage innovation in wearable technologies, but this work is in the clearly-defined fields of sport and wellbeing, entertainment, hospitality, health and safety, accessibility and design.

Product marketing manager for industry solutions at Cisco, Marc Blackmer told SCMagazineUK.com that he is “not surprised” that the Chinese military is taking this position.

“This goes to the heart of the security concerns regarding consumer wearables, and the Internet of Things, as a whole. Any consumer wearable device over which the user has control in installing apps with unknown privacy controls, and sharing any manner of data has no place in a military context,” said Blackmer.

Blackmer continued, “I'm specifically calling out consumer wearables, and not speaking of wearables, as a whole. Purpose-built devices could provide a wealth of data from the field that could be advantageous for armed forces. The trick will be finding the right balance of data (actionable intelligence) and ensuring that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.”

The evidently extremely steep learning curve that all industry - and the military sector - is on with technology in the wearables category is inevitably throwing up stories like this on a regular basis. Where ‘actionable intelligence' for military requirements meets consumer-level wearable big data channels is a line that has not yet been drawn.

Garry Sidaway, SVP of security strategy at NTT Com Security, told SC: "We will see more and more of these headlines - from our TV listening to our conversations to burglars knowing I'm not at home because my fridge hasn't ordered milk - let alone what my car is up to.

"But, we will have to get used to a completely different approach to information security - one that has context for the risk and embeds the controls into the services and technologies we use in our day to day lives. We must also re- evaluate our personal privacy – what we are prepared to share for greater and personalised services. As usual with our great desire to embrace "cool" technologies and advanced integrated appliances we forget about info sec, knowing where my kids are because they have their trainers on is OK for most, but for soldiers a different story – where again context is essential."

Barry Scott, CTO EMEA, Centrify, added:  "I think we all need to realise that similar to carrying smartphones around with us, smartwatches and many “Internet of Things” devices are going to have the potential for allowing others to track what we do, where we are and generally how we live. Like Internet browsing history, all interaction with “smart” devices is part of your digital footprint and could be used to build a picture of your habits. There's also the concern that such devices could be taken over by the bad guys, use of their cameras and microphones subverted and so on."