Chinese Big Brother

October 8, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

A bunch of Canadian human rights activists and computer security experts have discovered something that really doesn’t surprise me. An extensive Chinese surveillance system. Quell horror! To think that the Chinese could be monitoring electronic communications! I’m so shocked (not).

Customers of Tom-Skype (a joint venture between a Chinese wireless operator and eBay, who owns Skype) are being snooped on. Text messages sent by unsuspecting customers are being monitored and filtered against a list of suspect keywords. What sort of words? Here’s a rundown:

* democracy (God forbid the Chinese people should even be allowed to intellectually explore what democracy might be all about!)

* Falun Gong

* milk powder

* anything relating to Taiwanese independence

* Olympic Games (yep, let’s not allow any critique of the Games!)

* Communist Party of China

* earthquake

Of course, the Chinese Government has taken a bit of a hammering over the tainted milk fiasco and handling of earthquake relief. But the monitoring is pretty insidious. A cluster of eight computers is beavering away trapping the keywords in text messages and then….the Tom-Skype software, which knows the suspect keywords, blocks transmission of the words and a copy of the text message is sent to a server. This server retains information not only about the text message but also personal information about the customer. 166,000 TOM-Skype messages were archived in just two months.

Details of conversations between Tom-Skype customers and Skype users outside China, such as caller identification data, is also captured (well Chinese dudes, sure hope you enjoyed my recent 12 Skype chats with my Chinese coach in Shanghai!).

Now how did a bunch of Canadian human rights activists and computer dudes find out about this surveillance?  They managed to download the surveillance data because the Chinese computers were vulnerable to access (hah!). But this insidious surveillance system is such a good example of a Government trying to control its populace through communication technologies. Information Warfare Monitor has released a report: Breaching Trust: An Analysis of Surveillance & Security Practices on China’s Tom-Skype Platform.

This report raises some very interesting questions: do TOM Online and Skype cooperate with the Chinese government? Are they monitoring activists and dissidents or the average Chinese citizen? Are they monitoring specific user names? On what legal basis is TOM-Skype capturing and logging this volume and detail of personal user data and communication, and who has access to it? Is Tom-Skype being used as a censor for the Chinese Government? Is the US Skype being drawn into this fracas by its Chinese partner company?

I read in the China Digital Times that China has 90,000 “internet police” whose job is to monitor internet traffic, websites and blogs for political content as part of a project known as Golden Shield (aka the Great Firewall of China). Guess if that includes blogs outside China, ThinkingShift is already on the “suspect list” (if not, “internet police” dudes just look under the category China. That makes it easier for you).

So much for your Skype chats being secure and private! But I guess if you’re rushing to get into the huge Chinese market, you need to think twice about partnering up with a Chinese company because they will say they need to operate within Chinese laws and regulations (which hey, don’t respect privacy, intellectual freedom, human rights – well, I’d best stop here because the “internet police” will find me!).

Image credit: p2pnet

Entry filed under: China, Civil liberties, Privacy, Surveillance society. Tags: .

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