We originally published this post on our Online Privacy Blog, but we’ve updated it here as the story has progressed. (Originally published January 13, 2017.)
The private data collected by the Chinese government’s mass surveillance program is for sale online, and it’s not that expensive.
In the West, breaching personal data privacy in the interest of national security is usually seen as negative. In China, however, there is a different perspective. Whether you are a Chinese citizen or just an expat living in China, it is likely that the Chinese government is watching you, and pretty much knows everything about you–both online and off.
What is most surprising, however, is that it’s not always the government itself that is doing the watching. Saša Petricic at CBC news writes, “there’s an industry of private and state-owned high-tech enterprises serving [the Chinese government].”
Mass Surveillance is Only Part of the Story
Peter Fuhrman in the Washington Post gives an excellent example of surveillance by the Chinese government:
“Just about every time I get an international phone call on my Chinese mobile phone, I’m pinged within seconds by a text message. It’s an automated message from the anti-fraud department of the city of Shenzhen’s Public Security Bureau (PSB), China’s version of the FBI. This message informs me in polite Chinese that the PSB knows I’m on the phone with someone calling from outside China, and so I should be especially vigilant, because the caller could be part of some scheme to steal my money or otherwise cheat me.”
While the fact that government surveils its citizens is not really ‘breaking news’, one characteristic that is rather interesting is the that the data being collected is for sale online, and it’s not that expensive.
An investigation done by the Guangzhou Southern Metropolis Daily, a Chinese newspaper, explains that for a little over $100 (US dollars), you could access detailed reports about your friends and family–including bank records, recent hotels visited, travel arrangements, border entry and exit records, real estate transactions, etc.
Behavior Can Affect Daily Life
The Chinese government’s foremost argument in favor of mass surveillance is national security. In China, however, principles of national security are being brought to a new level as the idea of ‘social credit’ is being introduced. ‘Social credit’ is a trustworthiness score given to you by the Chinese government. The idea is simple: “if trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”
It works similar to American credit scores, but permeates all aspects of life. A low score might prevent you from travelling, attending certain schools, even joining different dating apps. Meanwhile, a high score can allow you to have discounts on heating, better terms for bank loans, and better services. Furthermore, in the city of Rongcheng, residents with the highest scores were displayed outside the city hall, library, and other residential areas–like an employee of the month.
Risks to Private Data are Not So Far Away
The Internet Society of China reported that 54% of web users had experienced serious leaks of their personal data, and about 84% said they had been negatively affected by these data leaks. The Win Law Firm in Beijing analyzed 67 court cases on personal data theft between 2010 and 2016. According to a report by one of their lawyers, Cheng Ziawen, the sources of these leaks are usually delivery services, online shops, real estate management companies, and education organizations. Health care producers, insurance and financial agencies, property agents, and professional traders were the main buyers of the data.
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