Chinese Government Dragnet Now Folding In American Social Media Platforms To Silence Dissent

from the multinational-surveillance-startup-seeks-nonconsensual-investment dept

The Chinese government’s surveillance of undesirables isn’t limited to its borders. It has been working with tech companies to produce an outsider-oriented surveillance platform to keep tabs on visiting students and foreign journalists — neither of whom might feel particularly obliged to maintain the party line.

The journalist-targeting surveillance system, detailed in a December 2021 Yahoo report, is apparently already mostly a reality. This New York Times report shows the government is already applying its oppression to visitors to the country, hoping to ensure nothing contradicting the official narrative makes its way to the internet airwaves.

Jennifier Chen went back to China to visit her hometown for the Lunar New Year. While she was there, she tweeted from her anonymous account to around 100 followers. Those actions managed to attract the attention of the Chinese government’s social media surveillance apparatus.

While living in China, she retweeted news and videos, and occasionally made comments censored on Chinese platforms, like voicing her support for Hong Kong’s protesters and her solidarity with minorities who have been interned.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough for the authorities to go after her. The police knocked on her parents’ door when she was visiting. She said they had summoned her to the station, questioned her and then commanded her to delete her Twitter posts and account. They continued to track her when she went overseas to study, calling her and her mother to ask if Ms. Chen had recently visited any human rights websites.

This isn’t completely a new idea for China, which has always sought to suppress anti-government sentiment, no matter where it originates. But the surveillance system behind this tracking of visitors and foreigners is somewhat new, and it utilizes new techniques to harvest social media content from foreign accounts posted to sites blocked in China. Security forces — including local law enforcement — keep tabs on the internet, combining offending social media posts with public records and government databases to identify and track surveillance targets.

Content not specifically under the government’s jurisdiction can still cause trouble back at home. Anyone associated with the person offending the government will be targeted by efforts to suppress speech.

One video recording, provided by a Chinese student living in Australia, showed how the police in her hometown had summoned her father, called her with his phone and pushed her to remove her Twitter account.

[…]

Three weeks later, they summoned him again. This time, calling her via video chat, they told her to report to the station when she returned to China and asked how much longer her Australian visa was valid. Fearful, she denied owning the Twitter account but filmed the call and kept the account up. A few months later, Twitter suspended it.

This foreign-facing work begins at home. Documents seen by the New York Times show law enforcement agencies are paying up to $1,500 per “investigation” targeting an overseas social media account. Contractors start with easily accessible social media content before digging into voter registries, drivers license databases, and whatever hacked data can be purchased or obtained from dark web data purveyors.

The offending content is subjected to a ranking system that allows the government to determine the person’s threat level. Criticism of government officials or attempts to organize protests is considered the biggest threat. Forbidden content like libel or porn is considered the least threatening, although it can also subject people to government harassment. The end result of these surveillance programs manifest themselves as visits from law enforcement, not-so-veiled threats delivered to close relatives, and, in at least one case, the temporary “disappearing” of parents or siblings.

Oppression without borders. That’s the Chinese government’s goal. Visitors who can’t play by the rules will be encouraged to leave. Locals traveling abroad will be reminded they can never escape their homeland’s grasp. A surveillance system that operates without constraint or consent rolls on uninterrupted, gaining power and momentum with each new iteration.

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Comments on “Chinese Government Dragnet Now Folding In American Social Media Platforms To Silence Dissent”

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18 Comments
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"China reads Orwell’s "1984" and responds with "Pffft….hold my baijiu""

Of course they will. They invented the "1984" society in Qin Shi Huang’s days and never looked back. Difference being that their desire for control and social order is based in pragmatism. Millennia of famines, revolutions, uprisings, weak governments, and warlordism have shaped what they have today – a recipe ensuring the majority of the citizenry have access to education, opportunity, commerce, and prosperity while using the minority as patsies, scapegoats and warning examples unto others.

As long as you are a "proper" chinese…productive, educated, dedicated to social ideals…your life will be good under the benevolent Divine Ursine, son of heaven. Cater to the 90% and ensure their well-being. Throw everyone who won’t fall in line under the bus.
Whenever some movement arises which has adherents thinking of that movement first, China second; Sects. Buddhists. Shaolin monks. Triads. Falun Gong. Tibetans. Uighyr. Etc…come down on them like a ton of bricks.

China’s government and all its representatives being excessively thin-skinned is part and parcel of this; Never let anyone doubt the current order. National face must be preserved at all cost.

ECA (profile) says:

Censoring remotely?

What a challenge.
Having 2 computers, 1 for general data and doing your thing. And the second to be used for Private data and reporting.

Reporting from inside the country isnt easy. But with a person outside and a Fully private connection, and abit of routing around. It shouldnt be able to be tracked.
Unless they Bug your computer, while inside China.

Persecuting your own people is NOT a good thing, even in short term. But the biggest problem tends to be Hong Kong. And a Very large share of the population is on the East Coast working the Industrial areas. And there are Tons of video about how construction is so Corrupted there, is Beyond stupid.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Just a friendly reminder

Twitter is not all of the Internet, and will cannot and will not stop you publishing your words elsewhere

This dismisses Twitter as a major platform which many use to bring awareness human rights issues where they might otherwise not get the reach that they could have on another platform.

Twitter joins other platforms that have actively censored people at a government request. Another instance is like the 2016 Rohinga genocide (which has experienced media censorship since the 1970s). In 2016 Facebook was a platform to post this content, that was subsequently censored for shedding light on the travesties beyond what news articles presented. Why? In Myanmar, Facebook was synonymous with "the internet" for many trying to bring light to this situation.

"For all intents and purposes, Facebook is Myanmar’s internet"
https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20180313/20160839421/un-says-facebook-is-complicit-spread-anti-muslim-hate-myanmar.shtml

For some people there is no where else to find anyone who cares or a place where they can have a voice. In a much less "heavy" anecdote, I used to work at a school and it would be quite common for students (grade 5) would come in and say "the internet isn’t working" because google (and only google, everything else was ancillary) wouldn’t load due to wifi being disconnected. I use this anecdote to highlight that there are children growing up right now that these platforms are the internet. They don’t know of anywhere else they can post content BUT large platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

For these people sometimes international aid means reaching out on major platforms to make the world aware of what is actually going on. To post awful but real videos of what is happening to them. These platforms with the belief of anonymous social media accounts protect the individuals from persecution and is often the ONLY way to let people know that they’re suffering.

When these same platforms assist a foreign government in persecution of an individual or a group of people by eliminating their content from wider audience reach, what else are they going to use? Gab? GETTR? If "giants" like Facebook or Twitter won’t stand up to a government censoring their atrocities, what are smaller platforms that don’t have the reach going to do?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Just a friendly reminder

Actively defend these actions?

Oh wait, I’m conflating what smaller countries do with smaller "social media outlets".

Let’s face it, at the end of the day, geopolitics and greed trump ethics and human decency, and there’s no good way to change that status quo.

Scream all you want, but we’ve already reached, geopolitically, the point of no return and our options are war, maintain the status quo or thermonuclear war.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Just a friendly reminder

If "giants" like Facebook or Twitter won’t stand up to a government censoring their atrocities, what are smaller platforms that don’t have the reach going to do?

Find somewhere to host where they can do their thing, just like Sci-Hub, or migrate their servers as required just like the Pirate bay. A small site run by a passionate team will find ways to keep going.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'friendly'? That's not how you spell 'dishonest'

applaud Twitter and Facebook’s censoring of people.

Ah yes, because there’s no real difference between the state, which has the power to throw you in jail saying ‘you’re not allowed to say that anywhere‘ and a privately owned platforms saying ‘you’re not allowed to say that on our property‘. Practically indistinguishable really.

Also which people are being ‘censored’ on those platforms and be specific.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Just a friendly reminder

"That China, like all of you, applaud Twitter and Facebook’s censoring of people."

I wish this was the first time I had to tell some alt-right fsckwit there’s a difference between a government with violence monopoly prohibiting certain speech for everyone and a private entity tossing the unpleasant asshole out of their house.

Just reminding you that you people are still being morons.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Telling priorities

Criticism of government officials or attempts to organize protests is considered the biggest threat. Forbidden content like libel or porn is considered the least threatening, although it can also subject people to government harassment.

Post libel about someone? Meh, you might get harassed by government goons, you might not. Question those in authority? Oh you better believe you’re getting a ‘visit’.

Positively charming how they use someone’s family as hostages to force compliance as well, truly it seems there is no low they will not sink to in order to maintain their iron grip.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

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