China wants to install police officers inside the country’s internet companies in order to crack down on ‘cyber crime’.
On 4 August Chinese newspapers reported that the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) would step up co-operation with the Cyberspace Administration of China and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in order to protect those Chinese internet users that “easily fall victim to cyber attack”. At the time, reports focussed on how the collaboration would combat fraud, privacy concerns and crimes that pose a threat to “national security and social stability”. That would involve upping police surveillance, and a firmer crackdown on “pornography, rumours or information about terrorism, guns or drugs”. The inclusions of “social stability”, “surveillance” and “rumours” in the statement laid the ground work for concerns that the government is more preoccupied with surveilling and cracking down on ordinary people, for political purposes.
It’s now been confirmed that the government plans to install specialist cyber crime units within the headquarters of internet giants in the country.
“We will set up ‘network security offices’ inside important website and internet firms, so that we can catch criminal behaviour online at the earliest possible point,” deputy minister of public security Chen Zhimin, is reported as saying.
There were no details released as to which companies would be required to allow this infiltration, and whether it applied to international or solely domestic operators like Alibaba or Tencent. In a statement Alibaba told WIRED.co.uk: “Alibaba works with Chinese authorities to combat illegal and criminal activities on the internet. It is our priority to maintain the reliability and security of our platforms to protect our customers.” WIRED.co.uk has contacted Tencent for comment and will update this story accordingly.
The move is in-line with China’s practice of dealing with cyber crime and censorship with the same tactics. A draft cybersecurity law announced in July was partially introduced as part of a wider push post-Snowden to protect China from alleged US infiltrators. It focussed heavily on “social stability” issues, which it sees as linked to “national security” threats posed by foreign governments and perceived domestic threats.
The law would allow officials to shut off internet access during any incident deemed a public security emergency, tactics it has deployed in the past when unrest has occurred. It would also require internet companies to carry out their own surveillance of users, report “network security incidents”, and register users’ real names. Many of these demands were already in place, but the law would make enforcement more systematic. The law also demands companies deploy stronger measures to protect customer data.
These types of tactics have been in place for years in China in one form or another, with the 1997 “Administrative Measures for Protection of the Security of International Internet working of Computer Information Networks” warning against producing, searching for, duplicating or disseminating “information that fabricates or distorts facts, spreads rumours and disrupts social order” or “information that instigates the subversion of the state political power and overthrow of the socialist system”. Today’s draft laws and talk of ‘network security offices’ seem a natural, if troubling progression.
“The goal seems to be to a create an intimidating atmosphere inside the companies themselves” professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University Qiao Mu told the FT, arguing that simply having police inside the offices wouldn’t really improve their censorship capabilities.
Prior to the Ministry of Public Security announcement, Human Rights Watch published a statement calling for the draft cybersecurity laws to be scrapped.
“While the Chinese government is known for its obsession with internet control, the draft law sends a clear and chilling message of intent to further control online expression,” China director Sophie Richardson said. “The law will effectively put China’s internet companies, and hundreds of millions of internet users, under greater state control.”
“The set of new state security laws construct an interlocking web that reinforces the government’s grip of power and internal stability. The already limited space for expression in China appears set to shrink in the coming years.”
The statement argues that together with the State Security Law, the draft Counterterrorism Law, and the draft Foreign NGO Management Law, the Chinese authorities “wrongly promote the idea that peaceful criticism against the government is a threat to state security”. The latest effort to create ‘network security offices’, fits neatly in with this world-view.