How China Censors the Internet and Monitors Your Telecommunications

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(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, August 11, 2008) –Foreign journalists reporting on the Olympics and visitors to China may not be fully aware of the risks they pose to themselves and to Chinese citizens with whom they communicate when they discuss issues the Chinese government deems “sensitive”. CHRD’s Alternative Guide to the Olympics (Part II)[i] provides you with a short overview of the ways in which the Chinese government censors the internet and monitors telecommunications. CHRD’s investigations[ii] have revealed the government’s use of a skilful mix of sophisticated technologies, tens of thousands of cyber-police and a complex administrative management system to censor expression and control information on the internet and telecommunication networks.

Censorship of the internet and blogs

Do you want to find out what Chinese people think about the Olympics from browsing Chinese websites and blogs? You will rarely come across voices critical of the Games and the government.

Government regulations, such as the “Regulations on the Administration of Internet News Reports”[1], require that all internet services be run by organizations registered with or recognized by the government and that the qualifications of such organizations be subjected to regular inspection. Similarly, the “Blog Service Self-Discipline Conventions”[2], a “voluntary” agreement signed by fourteen major blog service providers, gives internet companies (and by extension, the authorities) the power to erase “illegal and harmful” information from blogs and cease provision of services to the bloggers concerned. When authorities deem published information “sensitive”, they can use the Regulations and the Conventions as a justification to close down or block “unregistered” websites and “illegal and harmful” blogs.

In addition, a number of central government bodies are specifically in charge of issuing daily censorship directives. In Beijing, for example, internet companies receive as many as five directives daily from the Beijing Internet Information Administrative Bureau. To comply with the government’s orders, all the online companies have set up a section dedicated solely to monitoring all the messages and comments on their websites. Content of a sensitive nature is immediately masked or erased, and the username or IP address of the person who posted it is also blocked or forwarded to the police. Although websites practice diligent self-censorship, sometimes when websites are found to have postings that broach taboo subjects, the authorities may apply penalties ranging from criticizing the site, imposing a fine, ordering the dismissal of the website employee responsible or forcing either the site section or the entire site to close down.

Using the above mechanisms, the authorities have sought to ensure that negative news and comments regarding the Olympics are promptly deleted or blocked on the internet. Examples of some directives to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are:

  • July 2, 2007: “Please do not report on the fire at the Beijing University Olympics Ping Pong Coliseum. Please remove all reports that are already online. Please make sure searches using the following keywords return no results: ‘Fire at Beijing University Coliseum’, ‘Olympics Ping Pong Coliseum on Fire’…. Remove all relevant news reporting on the fire, and the issue should not be discussed or pasted onto internet forums, blogs and other interactive programs.…”

  • August 6, 2007: “Do not report or discuss in interactive programs [note: internet forums and blogs] the protest in front of the International Olympics Committee this afternoon by certain foreigners.”

In recent years, the internet has become a tool employed by the authorities to persecute free expression. Articles posted on the internet have been used as “evidence” to prosecute individuals. One of the authorities’ preferred charges by which to criminalize free expression is article 105(2) of the Chinese Criminal Code, which stipulates the crime of “inciting subversion of state power.” Yan Chunlin (杨春林), one of the “Olympics Prisoners”, was imprisoned for “inciting subversion of state power”. “Evidence” used against him at his trial included an open letter, “We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics,” which he posted online.

Mobile Phone Text Messaging

When you call Chinese friends or interviewees, your fixed-line/land-line phone is likely to be wiretapped. It is equally dangerous if you call or text them on your cell phone. Your text message goes through the cell-phone operator’s system, a part of which is a surveillance and monitoring system. In October 2005, the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) issued a notice requesting mobile phone operators to carry out real-time monitoring of all text messages. Since then, the three major mobile phone companies (all controlled by the state), China Telecom, China Unicom and China Netcom have carried out pervasive monitoring of the content and frequency of text messages sent out. Text messages are automatically screened for sensitive keywords while specialist staff monitor images and other multi-media content around the clock.

The use of keyword filtering is one of the main methods employed to censor not only mobile phone text messages but also the internet and other telecommunications. Authorities responsible for internet control issue a list of words, acronyms and phrases, which contain “core” keywords such as “falun”, “rfa” and “voa”. In addition to this core list, the authorities issue to ISPs additional keywords every month, depending on the political environment and the “sensitive” issues at the time. For example, just prior to the one-year countdown to the Olympics in July 2007, some additional keywords for censorship included “the fire at the Olympics Ping Pong Venue”, “Villagers Who Lost Land Due to Olympics Construction” and “Villagers Who Lost Land Due to ‘Bird’s Nest’”.

When “illegal” content is detected, the surveillance system stops the transmission of the message and keeps a record of it. Messages sent from certain mobile phone numbers, such as those of “noted” foreign journalists or key activists/dissidents are recorded by the surveillance system whether or not they are “illegal”.

You are likely to endanger the Chinese individuals whom you exchange text messaging, especially if you communicate what authorities consider “sensitive” information. On December 17, 2007, the Beijing Municipal government released a notice[3] stating that individuals who send mobile phone text messages that “propagate and spread rumors” and “endanger public safety” will be investigated and held legally liable by the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB).[4] With this notice, the municipal authorities threaten arbitrary detention and punishment of those citizens who exercise their freedom of expression and disseminate information that the government does not wish disseminated.

It is important to note that there is no clear legal definition of “rumors” and “endangerment of public safety”. In practice, “rumors” refer to information that may reflect negatively upon the government. Citizens who express their opinion and transmit “sensitive” information can be conveniently prosecuted using trumped-up charges of “making rumors” and “endangering public safety”. In June 2007 for example, Mr. Ding, a resident of Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province, was administratively detained for ten days after he sent over one-hundred text messages claiming that the level of carcinogenic substances in Taihu Lake, a well-known lake in the area, exceeded the acceptable standards by about 200 times. The messages were sent out around the time a toxic algae bloom on the lake caused public panic. Ding was punished for “using text messages to spread rumors…and cause public panic”, thus violating Article 25 of the PRC Public Security Management and Punishment Law. The government had previously called the algae bloom a “natural disaster” but later admitted that Taihu is polluted and that the bloom was a man-made disaster. In spite of that, Ding’s charges were never withdrawn.

E-mail Surveillance

Contacting your Chinese friends or colleagues or corresponding with people back home should be as easy as typing an email. But email too is subjected to stringent scrutiny and censorship. The ISPs providing email services in China comply with the official keyword filtering policy. The content and attachments of email messages are screened. Those containing “sensitive” keywords are not delivered. Whereas authorities can easily pressure domestic internet companies to comply with its censorship measures, they cannot as easily control foreign email service providers. In order to ensure that no “harmful” information gets into or out of China, the “Great Firewall” analyzes, filters and blocks material going in and outside of China. When you send emails into and out of China, they pass through various network devices, such as gateways and routers, which can automatically screen the content. If there is a banned keyword detected in the message or attached documents, it will be intercepted and may not reach the destination mailbox. The message, its sender and the sender’s relevant IP address will be recorded and may come under investigation. The “Great Firewall” is capable of breaking into a data-stream of an email messages and interrupting the connection. When you visit your gmail or other foreign-based email service provider inside the “Great Firewall”, if the dataflow includes a keyword, you will see the default ‘Cannot Be Displayed Page’.

Not only is your email under surveillance, the cyber-police might fake your identity or that of your correspondents (such as known organizations, journalists and dissidents) and send messages to you with attachments infected with “Trojan horse” viruses. If you open those, your computer will get infected, after which it risks being monitored as well as having information and passwords contained on it stolen.

Surveillance on Instant Messaging

“QQ”

QQ is the most popular instant messaging tool in China. Because of its popularity, QQ has become a key target of surveillance. Do not use QQ to communicate with people in China about “sensitive” issues, as eavesdropping on QQ conversations is pervasive. Tengcent, the company that owns QQ, cooperates with the Chinese government and has added a “back entrance” to eavesdrop on chats between QQ users. When sensitive keywords are used in the chats, QQ automatically records them. The messages as well as the computers’ IP addresses are sent to Tengcent’s server without the users’ knowledge. Tengcent then sends this information to the police so the latter can decide on when and whether to take further actions.

MSN Surveillance

Since MSN uses ASCII in encoding, the instant messaging service cannot be encrypted and it is very easily intercepted and eavesdropped by special software. Because of its insecure nature, cyber-police do not need to install spyware on the target’s computer to get a complete view of the chat records. It is believed that the MSN chats of many of China’s more prominent activists and dissidents are subjected to surveillance.

Skype

In September 2005, Skype and TOM (a Chinese internet company) launched the TOM-Skype Chinese version. TOM complied with the Chinese government’s request and installed a Trojan horse feature which filters keywords and collects user information. On installation, TOM-Skype automatically installs a censorship and filtering file, “contentfilter.exe”, on the user’s computer without notifying the user. Also during installation, TOM-Skype downloads a ‘keyfile’—an encrypted file that blocks and filters keywords– to the user’s computer. If you chat with a person via TOM-Skype, when you use a sensitive keyword, the chat is recorded and sent to TOM in an encrypted format.

When internet users in China go to Skype’s website (www.skype.com) and download the application, they are automatically re-directed by the Great Firewall to TOM-Skype’s website (http://skype.tom.com/). This means that most Chinese Skype users have downloaded and are using the TOM-Skype software with the surveillance mechanism. Many of them simply do not have the opportunity to download the un-censored international version.

How to Evade the Chinese Cyber-police and the Great Firewall

We suggest several safety measures while you are in China:

  1. To access blocked websites, use proxy tools provided by dongtaiwang.com and wujie.net. Other services that can be used to circumvent internet censorship are ziyoumen, huofenghuang, shijietong, hanfeng, SafeWeb and Tor.
  2. Avoid the use of “sensitive” keywords when using telecommunications tools.
  3. Do not use domestic anti-virus or firewall programs as their safety could be compromised.
  4. Do not use email services provided by ISPs based in China as they are likely to practice self-censorship and surveillance.
  5. Use foreign-based email servers, although note that their level of security depends on their relationship with the Chinese government. Gmail is a relatively safe email service, but its homepage is frequently blocked by the authorities. You can use proxy tools to access it. Use the encrypted form of gmail to prevent emails from being monitored simply by adding an “s” when requesting the usual gmail URL: https://mail.google.com. However, since correspondence takes two, your email is only secure if your correspondents also use encryption.
  6. Other safe and secure email service providers include Hushmail, riseup.net and vaultetsoft.com.
  7. It is essential that you use strong passwords for your email account and your computer. A strong password has no fewer than 8 characters and a combination of numbers, letters (in both uppercase and lowercase) and symbols.
  8. Refuse the computer’s offer to remember your password and fill it in automatically the next time you log on. If your computer is stolen, the thief can easily access your email and other internet applications.
  9. It is inadvisable to open email messages, and in particular attachments, from strangers. The risk of contracting viruses from strangers’ email attachments is higher. Even if the attachments seem to come from a friend, it’s best to be careful and check the sender’s address to make sure it is indeed your friend’s.
  10. Do not use QQ or MSN instant messaging services.
  11. If you have to use Skype, make sure your correspondents uses Skype, not TOM-Skype. To reach the Skype international website and download the international version in China, you need to use proxy tools described in point 1 above to circumvent the Firewall.
  12. When you use Skype, make sure it is not set to keep a chat history. If your computer is stolen or confiscated by police, it is easy for them to access your Skype account and peruse its chat records.
  13. When you use Skype, always establish the identity of the person with whom you are chatting. Do not assume the person is who s/he says. For example, ask the person questions s/he would not be able to answer unless s/he is who s/he claims to be.

The preceding information is from the following CHRD reports in Chinese

(An English version of the reports will soon be available):

政府如何监控我们的电子网络通讯? (“How does the Government Monitor our Telecommunications” March 24, 2008)

中国网络监控与反监控年度报告(2007 (2007 “Annual Report on Internet Surveillance and Anti-Surveillance in China” July 10, 2008)

Related CHRD reports in English:

China: Journey to the heart of Internet censorship” (October 26, 2007)

Dancing in Shackles: A Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2007)” (May 1, 2008)


[1] <互联网新闻信息服务管理规定>

[2] <博客服务自律公约>

[3] “Notice Regarding the Further Regulations and Management of the Use of Mobile Phone Text Messages in the Release of Public Information”《关于进一步规范本市手机短信息发布公共信息管理工作的通知》

[4] CHRD, “Beijing to Punish Mobile SMS Users for ‘Endangering Public Security’ and ‘Spreading Rumors’,” December 23, 2008, available here: https://www.nchrd.org/Article/Class9/Class10/200712/20071224131450_6851.html.


[i] “CHRD’s Alternative Guide to the Olympics (Part I)”, August 7, 2008, https://www.nchrd.org/Article/Class9/Class10/200808/20080808010440_9905.html

[ii] See 政府如何监控我们的电子网络通讯? (“How does the Government Monitor our Telecommunications”) and 中国网络监控与反监控年度报告(2007 (“2007 Annual Report on Internet Surveillance and Anti-Surveillance in China”).

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