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China’s army bans smartwatches and other wearable devices, thanks to a girlfriend’s gift

When a new recruit in China’s military received a smartwatch as a gift from his girlfriend and used it to snap a photo of his comrades, he was unknowingly sparking a ban on all such devices for all 1.6 million soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army. China’s military authorities point to the potential for smartwatches and other wearable devices to be hijacked as eavesdropping tools that can expose sensitive locations and communications as the reason for the ban.

After a squad leader caught the recruit enjoying his new gift, he took it up to his superiors, who ultimately banned smartwatches and other wearables. “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,” according to the resulting warning as published in the Liberation Army Daily, the Chinese military’s official newspaper.

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Individual members of the Chinese army contacted by NBC News confirmed that smartwatches and other wearable devices are now banned.

“The army ban comes on the heels of a separate controversy over a Chinese television anchor who appeared on-air wearing what looked like an Apple Watch and was accused by some viewers of ‘showing off her wealth,’” notes NBC News.

The ban on smartwatches and other wearable devices in the Chinese army highlights the general challenges military forces around the world. “Any self-aware organization will have measures for operational security,” said Peter Quentin, a research fellow at the British defense think tank Rusi, in an interview with the BBC.

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Quentin added that any device that’s networked can be exploited deliberately or inadvertently, which is why some places where sensitive discussions take place already forbid phones.

There are already companies trying to protect against the potential security vulnerabilities that come with the increasing prevalence of smartwatches and wearable devices. Bastille Networks, for instance, is using proprietary software and sensors to monitor unusual radio frequency activity in enterprise environments.