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.