Spying software targets China’s global critics 

A surveillance system network is being used to mine data and stifle democratic debate

Listen to article

China has become a highly sophisticated surveillance state under a cloak of secrecy shrouded by the digital revolution.

The world’s second-largest economy already maintains a nationwide network of government data spying systems dressed up as public opinion analysis software.

But now, Beijing is using those systems to target “Western social media, including Facebook and Twitter,” and harvest data for Chinese government agencies, the military and the police, The Washington Post has reported.

“[This will help us to] better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel,” a Beijing-based analyst, who works for a section reporting to China’s Central Propaganda Department, told The Post last week.

Digital targets:

  • Chinese state media software has been programmed to mine Twitter and Facebook.
  • The aim is to create a database of foreign journalists and academics, The Washington Post stated.
  • There is also a Beijing police intelligence program.
  • That will analyze Western chatter on Hong Kong and Taiwan, The Post reported.
  • A cyber center in Xinjiang, where at least one million Uighurs have been held in internment camps, catalogs the Muslim minority group’s language content abroad.

[China is] now reorienting part of that effort outward, and I think that’s frankly terrifying.

Mareike Ohlberg, the German Marshall Fund

Reaction to the news: “[China is] now reorienting part of that effort outward, and I think that’s frankly terrifying,” Mareike Ohlberg, of the German Marshall Fund, told The Post.

Public opinion war: “It really shows that they now feel it’s their responsibility to defend China overseas and fight the public opinion war overseas,” Ohlberg, who has conducted extensive research on China’s domestic public opinion network, said.

Delve deeper: President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party had already launched a “hybrid war” in 2020 by gathering personal details of 2.4 million people from around the world.

Surfing snoopers: The information was put together by Zhenhua Data, which is based in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, and was compiled by using public open-source material such as social media profiles.

Leaked data: “Internet 2.0, a cybersecurity consultancy based in the Australian capital of Canberra whose customers include the American and Australian governments, said it had been able to recover the records of 250,000 people from a leaked dataset,” The Guardian newspaper in London reported. 

Alternative view: “We do not collect data. Our business model and partners are our trade secrets. There is no database of two million people,” a company spokeswoman told The Guardian at the time.

China Factor comment: Cybertheft has been a cornerstone of Beijing’s high-tech development and China’s economic rise. Now, cyber-surveillance is being used to silence the country’s critics across the world. Democracies have been warned.