Chinese Internet Users Start To Rebel Against Lack Of Online Privacy

from the just-a-blip-or-the-start-of-something-bigger? dept

We recently reported how China continues to turn the online world into the ultimate surveillance system, which hardly comes as a surprise, since China has been relentlessly moving in this direction for years. What is rather more surprising is that Chinese citizens are beginning to push back, at least in certain areas. For example, The New York Times reports on an “outcry” provoked by a division of the Alibaba behemoth when it assumed that its users wouldn’t worry too much if they were enrolled automatically in one of China’s commercially-run tracking systems:

Ant Financial, an affiliate of the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, apologized to users on Thursday after prompting an outcry by automatically enrolling in its social credit program those who wanted to see the breakdown [of their spending made via Ant Financial’s online payment system]. The program, called Sesame Credit, tracks personal relationships and behavior patterns to help determine lending decisions.

When one of China’s business leaders complained publicly about the lack of privacy in China, and how Tencent’s hugely-popular WeChat program spied on users, the company’s denials were met with another outcry:

Tencent said that the company did not store the chat history of users and that it would never use chat history for big data analytics. The comments were met with widespread disbelief: WeChat users have been arrested over what they’ve said on the app, conversations have turned up as evidence in court proceedings, and activists have reported being followed based on WeChat conversations.

Meanwhile, the third of China’s Big Three Internet companies — Baidu — has been hit with legal action over privacy concerns, reported here by Caixin:

Baidu Inc., China?s largest search-engine operator, is being sued by a consumer-protection organization that claims it collected users’ information without consent, in the latest privacy dispute involving the country’s tech giants.

Two mobile apps operated by New York-listed Baidu, a search engine and a web browser, could access a user’s calls, location data, messages and contacts without notifying the user, the Jiangsu Consumer Council, a government-backed consumer rights association, claimed in a statement on its website.

The Chinese government may not worry too much about these calls for more privacy provided they remain directed at companies, since they offer a useful way for citizens to express their concerns about surveillance without challenging the state. It looks happy to encourage users to demand more control over how online services use their personal data — so long as the authorities can still access everything themselves.

As well as government acquiescence in these moves, there’s another reason why Chinese companies may well start to take online privacy more seriously. ?n article in the South China Morning Post points out that if Chinese online giants want to move beyond their fast-saturating home market, and start operating in the US and EU, they will need to pay much more attention to privacy to satisfy local laws. As Techdirt reported, an important partnership between AT&T and Huawei, China’s biggest hardware company, has just been blocked because of unproven accusations that data handled by Huawei’s products might make its way back to the Chinese government.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: baidu, tencent

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Chinese Internet Users Start To Rebel Against Lack Of Online Privacy”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

We are right there with them

The US has tapped the backbone of the internet and has enough storage and processing power to literally rewind the internet and follow the actions of people they wish too. The data from the collections is now available to nearly every defense department agency and they can do with it what they wish. Give it another decade and we will be ahead of them in 1984 style tracking and editing in real time. Our rights no longer exist since we haven’t enforced them recently.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 We are right there with them

What about that elitist, the last Emperor? He walked about in the finest designer clothes on the taxpayer’s dime and nobody said a word about it. Damn last Emperor’s supporters are a bunch of hypocrites, the lot of them.

The human body is a beautiful thing so don’t be so prudish. Our glorious Emperor is saving the taxpayer’s money and all you can do is whine instead of praising him like you should.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: We are right there with them

The US has tapped the backbone of the internet and has enough storage and processing power to literally rewind the internet and follow the actions of people they wish too.

Internet traffic currently estimated at about 100 Petabytes/month with approaching exponential growth rate year on year. Even if there in fact is enough storage manufacturing in the world to keep ahead of that and allow even a short, rolling window of "the historical internet", I’d hate to be the storage tech that has to install all that! I’ve no doubt the hoover up vast quantities of data they shouldn’t have, but let’s keep the hyperbole at least within reason?

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: We are right there with them

True, but on the flip side of that, most traffic isn’t unique. They only have to store content of interest once as a reference for anyone accessing it. (Including automatically displayed detritus like ads and decorations.) Sending text in one form or another is even smaller. Sure, individual audio/video communication is heavier, but that seems to be the most interesting to them in the first place. Not saying they do this, but avoiding storage of the same thing a million times is certainly possible, and reduces that 100 petabytes a month significantly. (Filtering spam and junk traffic, which makes up a significant portion of our PB/mo, would reduce storage even further.) Pretty sure the 100 PB figure also includes all the packet headers and other discardable overhead. You only need one copy of the endpoint IPs.

It’s still an insane amount of data, but nowhere near 100 PB/mo for storage. Not that it makes the original claim a lot more realistic. Currently.

But the vacuum it all approach should have them in some deep copyright shit, technically, given the standard “bits were touched / duplicated” arguments made.

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Re: Re: We are right there with them

"…most traffic isn’t unique…"

I’d dispute that – esp. at the packet level. Add in the ever increasing volume and % of traffic that is encrypted and you have something nigh-on impossible.

Also, I’d question exactly HOW the intelligence community is supposed to moving this gigantic volume around, and back to their data farms – do we really think that each agency has their own private internet to move the real internet around?

Also, even if this was taking place, what’s the point?
There is no technology on this earth that could meaningfully query against this ever-growing volume of data. Think of the indexes you’d need…forever being grown, rebuilt, analyzed…

To my mind these kind of "capabilities" are a scary bedtime story; nothing more, nothing less.

Anonymous Coward says:

“has just been blocked because of unproven accusations that data handled by Huawei’s products might make its way back to the Chinese government.”

Very misleading. Huawei has been caught red handed with spyware on its devices. While it’s unclear what was collected or for what reason as the data was heavily encrypted, it’s not unfounded for US officials to voice concerns and block US companies from making deals with Chinese hardware makers, especially when that maker is PROVEN to be spying on its hardware users.

The firmware was discovered on Huawei devices by a firm called Kryptowire and reportedly it only showed up on EXPORT devices. So if you’re going to comment on the threat of surveillance & espionage Chinese companies present to the rest of the world, get it right. It’s a very real problem that’s already manifest.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »