Researchers Say Chinese Government Now Censoring Images In One-To-One Chat

from the shot-spotters dept

It looks like China is continuing to set the gold standard for internet censorship. For a long time, the Great Firewall has been actively censoring content based on keywords. Activists and dissidents have worked around this filtering by placing text in images, but that doesn't appear to be working nearly as well as it used to.

Toronto's Citizen Lab noticed some unusual things happening in days surrounding the death of China's only Nobel Peace Prize winner (and longtime political prisoner), Liu Xiaobo.

On WeChat, we collected keywords that trigger message censorship related to Liu Xiaobo before and after his death. Before his death, messages were blocked that contained his name in combination with other words, for example those related to his medical treatment or requests to receive care abroad. However, after his death, we found that simply including his name was enough to trigger blocking of messages, in English and both simplified and traditional Chinese. In other words, WeChat issued a blanket ban on his name after his death, greatly expanding the scope of censorship.

We documented censorship of images related to Liu on WeChat after his death, and for the first time found images blocked in one-to-one chat. We also found images blocked in group chat and WeChat Moments (a feature that resembles Facebook’s Timeline where users can share updates, upload images, and short videos or articles with their friends), before and after his death.

China has tackled image censorship before, but it hasn't been able to achieve this in one-to-one chat until now. And it's being done stealthily to prevent senders or receivers from knowing their images have been blocked.

Similar to keyword-based filtering, censorship of images is only enabled for users with accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers. The filtering is also not transparent. No notice is given to a user if the picture they sent is blocked. Censorship of an image is concealed from the user who posted the censored image.

The censorship is only apparent to international users without registered Chinese phone numbers. And, like most blanket censorship efforts, it's far from perfect.

The exact mechanism that WeChat uses to determine which images to filter is unclear and in our testing sample we found unexpected results. Blocked images included screenshots of official government statements on Liu Xiaobo’s death, which we did not expect to be censored. We also found images that were not blocked that could be seen as sensitive, such as an image of book covers of “Charter 08” and a Biography of Liu Xiaobo, which are both banned in mainland China.

As Citizen Lab points out, this censorship effort is especially concerning, as it indicates the Chinese government is possibly in the business of internet-enabled retroactive amnesia. If it leaves the filtering in place long enough and censors enough websites and personal chats, the history of Liu Xiaobo will be slowly rewritten with narratives approved by the Chinese government.


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  • identicon
    Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously, 19 Jul 2017 @ 3:51am

    Well, they want to keep up on the obfuscation front..
    /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 3:55am

    Like Europe and its right to be forgotten? Or the US with DMCA takedown requests and domain seizures without due process?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 6:50am

      Re:

      Exactly.

      China censors.
      America punishes and takes down.

      China does it for good reason, to protect their sovereignty from proven spy agencies like Google and Facebook.

      America does it for business aka greed and to protect its secrets that give them political coercion/military advantage.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 8:50am

        Re: Re:

        "China does it for good reason, to protect their sovereignty from proven spy agencies like Google and Facebook"

        "America does it for business aka greed and to protect its secrets that give them political coercion/military advantage."


        That's funny ... you can't be serious.
        Yeah, petty bullshit never enters into the equation because politicians would never overstep their boundaries attempting to do things outside standard protocol, ethics or other such silly things. And certainly monetary concerns would never drive any censorship attempts.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 10:26am

        Re: Re:

        "China does it for good reason, to protect their sovereignty from proven spy agencies like Google and Facebook."

        Er.. China does for the exact same reason you say the US does. Two sides of the same coin.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 4:53am

    "Blocked images included screenshots of official government statements on Liu Xiaobo’s death, which we did not expect to be censored. We also found images that were not blocked that could be seen as sensitive, such as an image of book covers of “Charter 08” and a Biography of Liu Xiaobo, which are both banned in mainland China."

    So, like all such blocking, it's not going to be 100% accurate and is guaranteed to affect perfectly legitimate content, even that supplied by the people advocating for the block.

    Or, as we call it in every other thread where someone advocates for blocks of some kind of content, the exact, predictable, unavoidable outcome. The only difference is that at least the Chinese government are apparently performing the block themselves rather than demand 3rd parties do it for them and attack them when the predicated outcome happens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 6:55am

      Re:

      Another big difference is that the Chinese government often censors and blocks American companies that are known to be US government's spy agencies, such as google and facebook. This is done to protect their sovereignty against those mega corporations that know no jurisdiction.

      On the other hand, US government attacks individuals such as Assange and Snowden mainly for whistle blowing aka revealing wrong doings of the US gov.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    ryuugami, 19 Jul 2017 @ 5:08am

    the Chinese government is possibly in the business of internet-enabled retroactive amnesia

    Since you can't forget present or future, isn't amnesia "retroactive" by definition?

    // This comment brought to you by UUEERR, United Union for Exterminating and Eliminating Redundancy and Repetition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 5:57am

    When will people realize that China is a sovereign country. They are not bound by our U.S. Constitution. China is still a communist party, even if you choose not to believe that. They have also existed for a whole hell of a lot longer than the United States so I think they know better than we do on how to run their own damn country.

    Get over your moral superiority.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 6:05am

      Re:

      "When will people realize that China is a sovereign country. They are not bound by our U.S. Constitution"

      Neither am I but I still comment on articles about that country. Are you saying that people shouldn't criticise other countries, or that they should just ignore them when they're doing something that they would not like their own country to follow? What's your point?

      "China is still a communist party"

      Country....

      "They have also existed for a whole hell of a lot longer than the United States"

      Not in its current form as a communist country. So, what are you saying? Who gets the right to talk about another country - the one that's been around for longest, the one with the longest running political system, what?

      "Get over your moral superiority."

      You first. I'd start by having some logical consistency in your arguments.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 7:05am

        Re: Re:

        " or that they should just ignore them when they're doing something that they would not like their own country to follow? "

        That is not criticizing WITH FACTS AND DATA...that is just again, as he said, an opinion on a pretentious moral superiority. How do you know "they would not like their own country to follow?"

        "Who gets the right to talk about another country"

        No of course you have your right to your opinion, but do it with FACTS not with "they woulds.." and crap like that. Otherwise you are just a propagandist. And if you really like to criticize wrong doings, why don't you focus in your own country and actually TAKE ACTION and change things in your country first before giving opinions about others?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 7:26am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Well, I've triggered something there, but I'm not sure what. You seem to have a serious problem somewhere, but you're not communicating anything legible.

          "How do you know "they would not like their own country to follow?""

          Because after reading this site for a number of years and understanding the opinions of its staff, I can presume that one reason Tim Cushing is writing about these actions is that he would not like his own country to follow suit with what China are doing here. Do you honestly have a problem with me stating that?

          "why don't you focus in your own country and actually TAKE ACTION and change things in your country first before giving opinions about others?"

          Why don't you? Are you honestly saying that your country has to be perfect before you make any comment on another? Because, in a wholly laughable comment, that's the silliest thing you've said.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Richard (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 7:33am

          Re: Re: Re:

          And if you really like to criticize wrong doings, why don't you focus in your own country and actually TAKE ACTION and change things in your country first before giving opinions about others?

          One can take the view that the elites of all countries to some extent form a conspiracy against the rest of us.

          to paraphrase a famous quote

          First it happened in China - but I wasn't Chinese so i didn't bother about it.

          Then it happened in Pakistan - but I wasn't Pakistani so I didn't think I had the right to protest about it.

          Then It happened in Germany... etc etc

          ...

          ...

          The it happened in my own country - so I protested and my government said "every other country in the world does it so we have to follow suit- just accept it like everyone else does.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Ninja (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 10:33am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Do you mind providing facts and data that support the view that China is a poor honest fellow defending against evil motherfucking eagles? I'm waiting. Because there's plenty of evidence from credible sources that China is deep in the wrong with its censorship efforts. And I'm not even talking about American mainstream news, I'm talking about independent people from all around.

          And I would say with pretty high certainty that Paul does the same with his own country much like I do. When there happen to be articles criticizing (or the rare ones praising) my own country I also contribute with my critique or ideas if I can add to the discussion somehow.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 7:00am

      Re:

      Agreed.

      As they say, before start pointing your finger at others, clean your goddamn backyard first.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 8:55am

      Re:

      "They have also existed for a whole hell of a lot longer than the United States "

      You must be one of those students who graduated from an "alternative school" where they teach alternative history.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 12:39pm

      Re:

      When will people realize that China is a sovereign country. They are not bound by our U.S. Constitution.

      When will you realize that the US is a sovereign country, China's censorship rules don't apply here, and that we can damn well criticize the Chinese government if we want to?

      Get over your moral superiority.

      And sink to your level? No thanks. Go home, comrade.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 12:48pm

      Re:

      "They have also existed for a whole hell of a lot longer than the United States so I think they know better than we do on how to run their own damn country."

      United States of America - 1776
      People's Republic of China - 1949

      Chinese math?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Canuck, 19 Jul 2017 @ 5:42pm

      Re:

      "They have also existed for a whole hell of a lot longer than the United States so I think they know better than we do on how to run their own damn country."

      Yeah, that whole "Lost Generation" thing y'all had - that was some damn fine knowing better how to run your own damn country...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 6:47am

    America don't need to censor anything. They just need to run the propaganda machine, and if there is a leak they just need to punish and torture (in high profile manner) all those whistle blowers (Snowden, Manning, etc) even if they are not American (Assange) to create a self-censorship attitude in their population.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 9:01am

      Re:

      That has been in place for some time and lately it seems to be having issues in that it is leaking like a sieve.

      You can't punish everyone all at the same time ... or can you? What would that look like?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 7:08am

    I dare any American to scream "Bomb!" in an airport or New York metro station. I double dare!

    What is better for the oligarchs than censorship? SELF CENSORSHIP.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 9:02am

      Re:

      Possibly, there is a difference between your "scream" and a person stating that the emperor has no clothes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 10:38am

      Re:

      That would fit squarely in that category of things you are not forbidden to say but you will have to deal with the consequences. It's like the "you can't yell fire in a crowded theater and get away with it". In fact you can yell fire or bomb, the Government cannot stop you from saying anything but it can punish you if it causes deaths or general damage or incites violence. The difference between the US and China is that in the US you can still say and publish things before the Govt even has the chance to do anything. In China it's preemptive. You are prevented from yelling bomb/fire even if there is a bomb or a fire.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2017 @ 9:43am

    shows how asshole governments can do what they want and how the people have no say in anything, ever! free speech is being removed from just about every country on the planet and it's extremely worrying to think that China could be laying the foundations of a world run by a few who treat everyone else like slaves!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 11:02am

    THE amount of tech..

    Needed to monitor and Control CHAT and P2P chat is HUGE..
    I wonder how much is automated?
    pre-judged Pics Stored and replace ones THEY dont want seen? Would be easiest..

    I dont think they have FOUND ALL the chat channels yet.
    its not easy to find a SMART person, that knows HOW to hide.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2017 @ 7:25am

    China learns fast with the West on how to censor the Internet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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