In the northern Chinese province of Hebei, the regional government are rolling out new rules which require any business, building, or public space offering wi-fi to apply surveillance techniques to monitor all public online activity. Rumours of similar policies in other Chinese provinces suggest that this is part of a national policy to snoop on all public wi-fi users.
The new regulations require any public wi-fi providers to “record and retain user registration information … user login and exit time, caller ID, port number, account number, IP address, domain name, and system maintenance log.” In addition, a record must also be kept of every website each user visits. All this data must be held for a minimum of 60 days and will, of course, be available for Communist Party officials to scrutinise.
Businesses and organisations which are required to comply with the new rules include retail, leisure, catering, and transportation companies. All must purchase government-approved surveillance technology which will enable them to comply with the rules, and must cover the costs of purchasing this themselves.
The usual justifications
According to Radio Free Asia, the Chinese Communist Party is referring to these new surveillance measures as “online safety protection measures.” They argue that the new rules “will prevent lawbreakers from using the internet to carry out terrorist activities, spread rumours, or spread pornographic and other illegal content.”
Such claims are common practice behind the Great Firewall in China and are often used to justify the huge range of surveillance and censorship tools employed by the Communist Regime. It is not clear how many people in the country accept the justification and how many can see through it.
Curiously, at the same time as these new regulations are rolled out, a Chinese app which encrypts online data when using public wi-fi networks, in a similar way to a VPN, also reported that they had an extra 100 million users over three months period to the end of 2016. VPN use across China also continues to grow despite the forthcoming ban.
Human Rights targeted in censorship
Online censorship also continues apace in China. Researchers from Citizenlab, a research organisation based at the University of Toronto in Canada, have published a report detailing evidence that Chinese censors blocked content about a police operation in the country which has targeted human rights lawyers, known as the 709 Crackdown.
The 709 Crackdown has been going on since July 2015 and has seen more than 300 human rights lawyers and their families targetted. Many of them have been detained, put under intensive surveillance, and banned from leaving the country. However, to date, just four people have actually been convicted of any offence, with 10 more still to face charges.
Ron Deibert from Citizenlab explained that “The 709 Crackdown is considered one of the harshest systematic measures of repression on civil society undertaken by China since 1989… Unfortunately, as our experiments show, a good portion of that discussion fails to reach users of [Chinese social media sites] WeChat and Weibo.”
It is believed that Chinese censors have banned certain keywords, such as the names of those lawyers being targeted, which stops any posts features those words from appearing. But also, images related to the 709 Crackdown have been removed from any social media account holders registered within China.
The compulsory surveillance of public Wi-Fi and the online censorship of the oppression of human rights activists are just two small examples of China’s huge and overbearing online censorship and surveillance operation.
Little wonder then that more and more Chinese citizens, as well as those from Taiwan and elsewhere who visit China for work or on holiday, are turning to VPNs to protect themselves.