I have worked in the technology industry for about 20 years, specifically in the information security field. I also have a degree in Asian Studies (long story on that) so have watched with keen interest how China’s repressive, authoritarian government has adapted to the spread of the Internet.
Recently a well-known (outside of China) political prisoner in China, named Liu Xiaobo, died from liver cancer while a prisoner in a hospital bed (he was transferred there from his prison cell). His family had requested he be released to seek treatment abroad but that request was denied. Calls for sympathy within China were censored and his widow has been placed under house arrest.
Mr. Liu, who participated in the Tienanmen Square protests, was declared a criminal for writing Charter 08, a call for peaceful discussions toward an end to one-party rule and more freedom. In 2010 Mr. Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize and an empty chair was reserved for him at the ceremony, which was boycotted by China. Shortly after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his then wife, a poet and artist named Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest. In 2009, when Mr. Liu made a statement at his trial, he said:
I hope I will be the last victim of China’s long record of treating words as crimes.
Sadly, his wish seems unlikely, and American technology companies seem increasingly complicit in helping China suppress dissidents – all in the interest of profit. It is this grinding the face of China’s politically impoverished that I would like to address.
The Chinese government’s ability to handle the Internet’s amplification of free-speech efforts has taken many forms, from the political to the technological. I believe their technological efforts have been focused in three primary areas:
- State sponsored cyber-espionage
- Great Firewall of China
- Surveillance and suppression aided by compliant US technology companies
State Sponsored Cyber-Espionage
Nation states have a long record of performing electronic and cyber-espionage. The United States’ National Security Agency is adept at such efforts, as Edward Snowden’s leaks made clear. In this respect, China is not much different than other state actors; however, in one aspect it joins the likes of Iran, Turkey, and other thug states: using cyber-espionage to root out and suppress dissidents.
In 2011 Google exposed Chinese efforts to compromise the Gmail accounts of US government officials, Chinese dissidents, and journalists. These same efforts were later tied to the compromise of Hotmail accounts and multiple attacks against the New York Times. Over time, these attacks were reliably attributed to the Chinese military and, in 2013, Mandiant, an information security firm, released a comprehensive report detailing the efforts of a group they dubbed APT 1 (for Advanced Persistent Threat 1), which was tied to elements within the Chinese military. China denied the evidence but all of us in the security community know better.
Great Firewall of China
I won’t spend a great deal of time discussing what has been called the Great Firewall of China, but in short it is a series of technologies the Chinese government utilizes in order to block access by Chinese citizens to websites deemed by the government subversive or problematic. Google has long been banned, as is the New York Times, Twitter, and Facebook. Various efforts have been used to circumvent the firewall, including Tor and various virtual private network (VPN) technologies.
What’s particularly interesting is when the Great Firewall is used as a weapon to perform denial of service attacks against organizations on the Internet. A famous case of this was when the Great Firewall was weaponized to perform such attacks against GitHub, an Internet-based source code repository used by virtually every coder on the planet. Since programmers within China’s borders need to access GitHub in order to collaborate on open source projects and retrieve source code, GitHub is not blocked by the Great Firewall. Since those who seek to circumvent the Great Firewall and provide relevant news to the citizens of China know this, there are mirrored copies of two sites blocked by the firewall: Great-Fire.org, an anti-censorship site aimed at providing information to bypass the firewall; and the New York Times. Both of those sites were targeted by a clever attack that utilized the Great Firewall aimed at knocking GitHub off the Internet. GitHub’s engineers were able to weather the storm and restore service, but it demonstrated that China takes censorship seriously.
Surveillance Aided by US Technology Companies
Complicit in a lot of the surveillance of Chinese dissidents are US technology companies, some of which have provided the technology for surveillance or censorship, and others by providing safe harbor for China’s government to continue operating with impunity. They do this because China, with its massive population, growing middle class, and modernizing society, represents a potential gold mine for any company able to effectively sell its products there. This proves too much of a temptation for many of Silicon Valley’s companies, who seem all too willing to toss dissidents under the bus in a grab for cash.
Here are some examples:
- Just last month, Apple announced that, at the request of China’s government, it would remove VPN applications from its Chinese app store.
- In 2005 Yahoo, which has close ties to Chinese tech companies, shared details about a Chinese journalist’s email account, leading to his arrest and imprisonment.
- Microsoft has shut down blogs of Chinese human rights activists and censored a blogging platform it hosts in China.
- Google censored search results until 2010, when it stopped doing so in response to the attacks against Gmail. Google has since been blocked by the Great Firewall.
- In 2008 Wired reported that Cisco Systems had sold China routing and switching equipment used to enforce censorship (likely part of the Great Wall).
- In 2014 Linked-In agreed to aid China in its censorship efforts.
- Facebook, currently banned from China, has long tried to get back into the good graces of Chinese officials. Reports are that there have been several efforts to do so, including the development of censorship software.
- Like Apple, Amazon has agreed to work to remove VPNs from its services.
There are many more examples of this type of behavior by US companies. I find it particularly galling that so many of these CEOs, founders, and executives put off an air of campaigning for social justice while they kowtow to the demands of China’s government to censor and suppress its citizenry. For example, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple and an openly gay man, has been vocal in attacking Virginia’s transgender laws and other anti-LGBT legislation (I agree with him, by the way), yet now defends his company’s removal of VPN software from its app store – software that is utilized by LGBT Chinese citizens to circumvent surveillance (China’s government is quite hostile to LGBT rights) – in what I can only see as an effort by Apple to seek market share in China’s lucrative mobile market.
US technology companies are helping to enable China’s suppression of dissidents and human-rights activists, and they should be ashamed of themselves. Fortunately, there are tools such as Tor and Signal available to help dissidents in their efforts to gain the freedoms we enjoy in the United States, but it is difficult to avoid becoming cynical towards the patronizing lectures from Silicon Valley regarding social policy, while they kowtow to thugs and oppressors in China.
- What obligation do US companies have toward dissidents in countries with oppressive governments?
- How should an executive balance a company’s social responsibility with the duty to seek profit?