China Will Cut Off Your Phone Call If You Say The Word 'Protest' [Updated]

from the protest-protest-protest dept

Update: It’s looking like this story is bunk, as attempts to fact check it have turned up nothing… even by one of the reporters on the story

It’s no secret that the Chinese government is exceptionally fearful that citizens there may take notice of the uprisings and protests in the middle east and try to do something similar at home. It’s also no secret that the government goes to great lengths to try to control certain forms of communication inside the country. However, it seems to be getting ever more hamfisted and ridiculous in how it does so. Take, for example, reports that phone calls where people say the word “protest” are leading to calls automatically being cut off, even if the call has nothing to do with anti-government protests:

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancee over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.

What really has me scratching my head, however, is how anyone thinks that this form of censorship is effective. Is cutting off someone’s phone call when they say “protest” really going to make them think “oh well, I guess I won’t protest now”?

In the meantime, I’m hoping this leads to a new game in China, where people try to figure out the right words and phrases to get the government to cut off your phone call midsentence. It could even be a drinking game.

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Comments on “China Will Cut Off Your Phone Call If You Say The Word 'Protest' [Updated]”

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william (profile) says:

Re: Self-censorship

They don’t monitor every call. It’s like a watch list too. The only difference is that their watch list is much much bigger and almost all foreigners are on the list.

Years ago (and that’s in the late 199x and early 200x), when you visit China, you have to be very careful when you talk to people. The type of people you want to be especially careful about are taxi drivers, who during transit will chat you up. If you are a foreigner, you need to be especially careful on what you say. There are a large percent of “informants” among the taxi drivers.

In addition to this, I remember those days when you call out of China from a hotel on a land line, your call will routinely fail on the first call, and then the second call would go through. When my co-workers calls, this almost always happens. It was until one day another person from a different company with base in China told me that they are automatically/manually checking foreigners’ calls.

I haven’t heard anything like that for the latter part of 200x though, but from this post it still seems to be going on.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Their point is not to stifle protest

Or it could be an example of people trying to hate monger on China with little to back it up.

What I find most interesting about the story is that even if there is not a shred of credible evidence, no one is denying that:

1) China does not have the ability to do this.
2) China does not have the motivation to do this.

If you already expect China to be doing this, you don’t need to see the evidence to think that its happening.

Oh, and I’m not hate mongering China just because its China. I don’t care if its China, Libya, Iran, or the USA. I don’t care if its a corporation. I’m against tyranny and the repression of an individual’s rights no matter who does it.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

List of things to say on a phone call in China:

1. I like my eggs sunny side uprising….

2. I just dissent you an email….

3. Ya’ll want to go back to the American South and watch some rally car racing….

4. I find China’s weather revolting….

5. Charlie Sheen is a riot….

6. I like punk rock, but that’s because I’m a rebel….

Anonymous Coward says:

Is cutting off someone’s phone call when they say “protest” really going to make them think “oh well, I guess I won’t protest now?

Are you purposefully being simple minded or are you trying to make a point? Clearly it’s not going to stop anyone from protesting, but it does present a roadblock or a obstacle to overcome, which just buys time, and it’s all the gov’t wants.

xs (profile) says:

The more silly part of the story is how anyone can believe this is true

Does anyone truely believe Chinese government posseses AI technology that’s far more advanced than anyone in the world, and only utilize it to monitor phone calls? Think about how many cell phones there are in China. The three big carriers have something around 700 million customers. If only 1% of them are on the phone at any one time, it’s 7 million calls to be monitored concurrently. During day time, it could be easily 10 times that at peak.

Do you honestly believe Chinese government has the capacity to monitor that kind of call volumn, and able to pick out a list of words in them while account for language, dialect, environmental noise, call quality and etc., and still can cut off the correct conversation in seconds after the key word was detected? All without slow down the entire cell phone system to a crawl?

And to think, the person immediately recognized it was the key word Protest that triggered the disconnect the first time it happened to him. Hmm, how observant of him.

Plus, it’s been tested and verified by many Chinese people that saying these purported key words does nothing to your phone conversation. So stop with the sensationalism and get back down to earth.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: The more silly part of the story is how anyone can believe this is true

You are assuming they would monitor everyone all of the time. That makes little sense to do.

Doing sweeps through different groups of people, monitoring them for a set amount of time, and then based on finding keywords keeping some in groups to monitor more often makes a lot more sense. This would allow you to reduce the number of people you monitor down pretty quickly.

Since they have demographic information and dates and times of calls, they can also reduce their set to the demographics most likely to be a problem and also focus on people that make more calls around dissenting activities. They can also monitor people based on them having conversations with people they find compelling.

If they can monitor only a thousand calls simultaneously, you could probably reduce that 700m customers down to a pretty reasonable number within a year by picking up partial calls and making some decisions.

If they are doing this (a big if, I know) they have been doing so in secret and we may be finding out about it several years since it started.

xs (profile) says:

Re: Re: The more silly part of the story is how anyone can believe this is true

What you’re proposing is even more unbelievable. You are proposing that Chinese government has a system to actually transcribe the calls that maybe in multiple languages and/or dialecs, then datamine the transcription for additional data to decide what other calls to monitor and transcribe. While technically it could probably be done, it raises the question: what’s the point of cutting off the conversation if you want to gather information from the call?

Atkray (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The more silly part of the story is how anyone can believe this is true

Have you bought anything from China recently? I just bought a pair of 2 meter HDMI cables for $.99 with free shipping.

I’m pretty sure they can round up people for transcription services if the want, remember in China working at gunpoint is not unheard of.

If you are Paranoid that in and of itself is motivation.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The more silly part of the story is how anyone can believe this is true

No, I am suggesting very simple data-mining of the calls.

1) Translate what you can – if you can’t ignore it
2) Transcribe what you can in real-time
3) If you hit any of a specific set of keywords, end the call
4) Based on a set of keywords found (or lack of translation, etc.) save the call recording

Now, out of real-time, do the following
1) Do a better job translating
2) Do a better job transcribing
3) Based on some keywords, categorize the call
4) Based on 3, demographic information about the owners of the lines, timing of the call and other events (say a protest), information about calls related to this one, mark the lines for more (or less) detailed monitoring

“it raises the question: what’s the point of cutting off the conversation if you want to gather information from the call?”

Now, that’s a great question. Someone actually monitoring phone calls (through whatever means) is probably not the most logical person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The more silly part of the story is how anyone can believe this is true

Do you have formal education and professional experience with speech recognition technology?

Apparently not.

Because if you did, you would know that this problem was reasonably well solved 25 years ago. And you would also know that because the effective bit rate of speech is quite slow compared to video or data, that it’s not a particularly compute-intensive task to digitize it all and funnel through a recognition engine.

And of course, if you were paying attention to what China’s been doing for the past decade-plus, you would know that they have an absolutely massive investment in computing horsepower that’s deployed for the sole purpose of blocking/filtering/intercepting traffic.

I suggest remedial self-education on these points.

halley (profile) says:

“In the meantime, I’m hoping this leads to a new game in China, where people try to figure out the right words and phrases to get the government to cut off your phone call midsentence. It could even be a drinking game.”

Right. In the US, a crowd-source test of a security scheme gets you a stern lecture from authorities and an article in Wired (ref: TSA strippers, GeoHot). In China, people are disappeared into black prisons just for saying the government wronged their family/neighbor/friend (ref: ).

Beta (profile) says:

But he said Jehovah!

One wonders how to warn one’s friends about the discovery of a new forbidden word.

Chen: Hello?
Liu: Hey Chen, there’s a new word that got Lun’s phone disabled, and it does the same in text and email. It’s… you know… saying something that…
Chen: Oh, you mean… wait, in print, or…
Liu: Well no, obviously. It’s the other one, the older word, kind of makes you think of the opera.
Chen: You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you.
Liu: No! It’s, like, the word you practically have to use whenever you talk about–[CLICK]
Chen [thinks]: And I paid how much for this phone?

Jim says:

This has gone on for a long time in America

You may or may not believe this, but this has been going on for a long time in the USA. I would regularly talk to my cousin in Australia and we occasionally would talk about political things, such as the IRA (Irish Republican Army). This, during the “troubles.” We would regularly have hour or more conversations and then when we would talk about the IRA, our connection would be cut. It was reproducible. On the third time we’d say IRA, either side, our connection would be severed. Occasionally we could not call each other back for 30 minutes or more. Now we weren’t plotting an IRA attack, nor discussing violence, but actually the political aspects of the IRA in the life of the Irish people. We quickly learned to use another word instead of “IRA” and we could talk without getting cut off. This was in the early 90’s on land-line telephones. (I guess on thinking about it, it could have been the Australian government doing it, but either way it was still happening)

Deirdre (profile) says:

In the mid 70’s on a land line phone it was thought that there was monitoring going on for certain words. One particular friend I would talk to would -without warning in the middle of a conversation about something apolitical- yell conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy. Ma Bell was still alive and assumed to be in the pocket of the government and the whole point was to keep the phone company busy chasing harmless conversations.

Benjamin (profile) says:

People are right to be extremely skeptical of this story.

Yes, the technology is readily available to detect specific keywords in speech. It can be done quickly, and very effectively. My phone can do it, and I know someone who helped bring that particular piece of software into being. That person now works for the NSA, presumably doing similar work – though he can’t say.

Nevertheless, doing this takes processing power, and not an insignificant amount. Multiply that my several million (or whatever the number of phone calls active in China at any given time) and you get a pretty hard nut to crack. I notice that the article from the Times talks a lot about internet censorship, but very little about the technology to engage in active, real-time censorship of phone calls.

Besides, even if this were limited to watchlists, what would be the purpose of cutting off a phone call? Wouldn’t it be in the state’s interest to allow the call to continue, and gather intelligence? If it were foreigners being monitored, wouldn’t the government want to know what they were discussing, instead of cutting off the call, and potentially alerting the target that they were being observed?

No, I think it’s far more likely that people are simply flying off the handle again. How hard is it to look like a competent journalist by “uncovering” some sort of government crackdown. I’m sure it’ll get the NYT many links.

Benjamin (profile) says:

Wow. So smart.

Actually, no. I don’t have that training. I do, however, have a great deal of experience with digital audio. Very much more than enough to know exactly what you’re talking about as you try to wow me with jargon. Please review the technology yourself, do some research on speech recognition, and then re-read what I said. Then think about it.

I stand by my comment that the processing power requirement is not insignificant, and when multiplied by several million times, it becomes problematic. If all of this were possible, we wouldn’t hear whining from the DHS about how they’ve got hundreds of thousands of hours of recoded conversations, but no way to vet them for intelligence.

Intercepting traffic? Yeah. On the internet. China can do that. Speech recognition requires a little more effort.

If you read my post, you would also note that I also point out that it would be substantially less useful for China to cut off such conversations that it would be to listen in.

If you want to suggest education, please have the smarts to demonstrate that you understand what you are talking about before dismissing it.

This piece is just part of the new red scare. And you, Mr. or Ms. Coward, are easily wowed.

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