China’s State-Mandated Spyware a Taste of Things To Come?

We might think our Western democracies are a long way from Beijing’s authoritarianism, but our privacy is already being diminished by the War on Terror.

China Spyware Sign of Things To Come
Phil Muncaster
By Phil Muncaster

The Chinese state has always been pretty extreme when it comes to invading the privacy of its citizens. Its latest move has been to force smartphone owners in Xinjiang province to install spyware so it can track and monitor them for terrorist activity. Those who refuse get 10 days behind bars.

A far cry from the policies of Western governments, you might think. Yet as lawmakers in the UK, Australia and elsewhere ratchet up their own anti-terror rhetoric, backed by sweeping new surveillance laws, the moral high ground is rapidly eroding.

It could be only a matter of time – and a few more successful homeland terror attacks – before similar plans are unveiled closer to home in the name of counter-terrorism. So, what are we going to do about it?

Spyware for the state

Spyware is an insidious class of malware which is designed – as it says on the tin – to snoop on its target. It’s commonly used by cybercriminals to lift lucrative information from a victim’s device, but increasingly it’s also favored by the police and security services to monitor suspects. In many repressive regimes it’s used by the authorities to target rights activists, journalists and others who dare to oppose the government.

Privacy International recently warned of an uptick in such surveillance activities in countries like India, the Philippines and Brazil and has written to EU member states to try and halt the export of such tools to authoritarian countries.

By mandating citizens in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province to download spyware to their mobile devices, Beijing is taking things a step further. It’s true that jihadism in China is increasing, partly as a response to the government’s repressive policies in the western region. In December last year four attackers were shot dead after driving a car into a government building, and in 2014 a mass knife attack in Kunming station killed 31 and injured 141.

However, when it comes to such extreme counter-terrorism tactics, can the ends ever justify the means?

This absurdly extreme approach to counter-terrorism scoops up an incredible amount of personal data. The privacy of the innocent majority be damned.

In China, where life is cheap and the authority of Party and state cannot be questioned, intrusive spyware is seen as a necessary measure to prevent terrorism and social unrest. Make no mistake, this software – known as Jinwang – will not only flag any blacklisted terror content on the phone, but harvest and send to the authorities any social media and comms records, as well as phone data including IMEI numbers and SIM card info. That represents a staggering invasion of privacy; a metaphorical sledgehammer to crack the ‘nut’ of terrorism.

However, it’s hardly surprising, given the direction Xi Jinping’s government is headed. Witness, a recent crackdown on VPNs; those essential tools which allow netizens in the country to bypass China’s vast censorship apparatus by tunneling through to the open internet outside its borders. Apple has pulled scores of VPN apps from its China App Store to comply with new rules designed to ban non-sanctioned foreign VPNs. Rumors abound that the government is planning a total ban on their personal use, leaving users unable to reach sites and services like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and many more.

Are we that different?

As a one-party state which offers no human rights protections to its citizens and where media and the judiciary do the bidding of the government, there is much that sets the country apart from liberalized Western democracies like the UK and Australia. Yet while many of us view the People’s Republic as a terrifyingly authoritarian regime far removed from our own, its war on terror has some disturbing similarities with efforts closer to home.

Beijing’s zero tolerance approach echoes the policies of UK and Australian governments. The former has recently passed a wide-ranging surveillance law, the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), which rides roughshod over personal freedoms in the name of public safety and security. It’s a model the Australian government is keen to follow.

China’s zero tolerance approach echoes the extremity of the UK’s Snoopers’ Charter and recent Australian policy

The IPA, or Snoopers’ Charter, gives the authorities the power to intercept all of our communications and hack our devices en masse without even requiring suspicion of criminal activity. The rhetoric from Prime Minister Theresa May and her colleagues following recent terror attacks in the UK has gone yet further, demanding that US comms providers undermine the securely encrypted platforms we all rely on to provide police with access to our messages.

She has also proposed plans to regulate what people can post, share and publish online, in another echo of the Chinese approach. “Regulation”, in this context, is barely more than a byword for censorship, and all in the name of counter-terrorism. These plans have already been criticized by none other than Max Hill QC, independent reviewer of terror legislation.

“We do not live in China, where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides,” he said. “Our democratic society cannot be treated that way.”

Feeding the news cycle

As Hill and others opposing this myopic hard-line approach are well aware, terror incidents are thankfully on the decline in the UK. In fact, you have more chance of being killed in a car accident than in a terror attack. Yet you wouldn’t know that by picking up a newspaper or turning on the TV.

The problem here is that terror incidents make great news for media companies – they make consumers buy papers and fuel the insatiable 24-hour news cycle. That’s why we’re being saturated by coverage of these incidents, so that it feels like they’re happening more often than they actually are.

Terror incidents are on the decline and you’re more likely to die in a car accident. So why are facing losing our civil liberties?

They also provide a perfect excuse for governments and politicians to claim more power, to peer further into our daily lives under the pretense of making us safer. Being tough on crime – especially the perpetrators of sickening terror attacks – is a proven vote-winner and plays well with the dominant right-wing media in the UK.

It’s a tactic straight out of Orwell’s celebrated novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the authoritarian government fabricates a continuous state of national emergency to keep a terrified populace subservient.

We’ve never been safer

The truth is, we’ve never been safer. Don’t let the government or the headline writers let you think otherwise. The real danger is from the state. An official parliamentary watchdog last year branded its cybersecurity strategy confused and “chaotic”. More recently, new reports have uncovered worryingly high levels of data misuse by police officers and staff. Would you trust these institutions with your most sensitive personal information, harvested without your knowledge in the name of public safety and counter-terrorism?

That’s what’s happening right now thanks to the IPA. But more worrying is what’s yet to come. The prospect of Chinese-style state-mandated “monitoring software” on our devices might seem like a step too far. But laws as intrusive and pervasive as the Snoopers’ Charter would have seemed like fantasy just a decade ago. All we need is a few more devastating terror attacks close to home to galvanize those calling for more yet more powers.

We need to oppose any such moves now, before the drip-drip of privacy infringing laws becomes a flood which washes away all personal liberty, and makes us less safe and secure, not more.

Image credit: Blogtrepeneur