Data obtained today says the Chinese government is collecting data from citizens of its own country and from the West.
Today, we know that some states and governments collect data from their own citizens. In fact, some countries, such as the United States, China and Russia, are known to take it internationally, closely following neighboring countries or regions where relations are strained. But a report today revealed how far China has come.
China collects a world of data from Western states!
China has mined Western social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to equip government agencies, military and police with information about foreign targets, turning out much of its internal internet data surveillance network, according to a Washington Post review of hundreds of Chinese. This is said to include tender documents, contracts and company files.
China is known to have a nationwide network of government data surveillance services, known as Public Analysis Software, which it has developed since the 2010s and is used locally to alert authorities to politically sensitive information online.
The software primarily monitors internet users and media located in China. But since the beginning of 2020, more than 300 Chinese government projects have been reviewing tender documents and contracts to collect data on foreign targets on Twitter, Facebook and other Western social media platforms.
At the same time, documents that can be publicly accessed through local government tender platforms reveal that institutions such as state media, propaganda departments, police, military and cyber regulators are buying new or more complex systems for collecting data.
These include a $320,000 Chinese state media software program that mines on Twitter and Facebook to create a database of foreign journalists and academics, a $216,000 Beijing police intelligence software that analyzes Western conversations in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a Xinjiang cyber center that catalogs Uighur language content abroad.
A Beijing-based analyst working for a unit reporting to China’s Central Propaganda Department said anonymously that they were once tasked with preparing a data report on how negative content about Beijing’s senior leadership spread on Twitter, including profiles of individual academics, politicians and journalists. He also said that “now we can better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel.”
These surveillance networks are said to be part of Beijing’s broader focus on improving foreign propaganda efforts through big data and artificial intelligence. They also create a network of warning systems designed to issue real-time alarms for trends that undermine Beijing’s interests.
The Biden administration is known to be concerned about U.S. investments in Chinese tech companies with military or surveillance ties. But Mareike Ohlberg, a senior member of the German Marshall Fund, said of the research on China’s internal public opinion network:
Right now, they’re rerouting some of that effort outward. Looking at the numbers and the huge scale that this has taken in China, it’s obviously quite frightening.
Part of the Chinese government’s budget includes the purchase and maintenance of foreign social media accounts on behalf of the police and propaganda departments. Still, others say Beijing continues to use targeted analysis to improve state media coverage abroad.
The scale of the purchases allegedly ranges from small-automated programs to projects that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to work 24 hours a day by teams, including English speakers and foreign policy experts. The documents also reveal highly customizable programs that can collect real-time data from individual social media users. Some describe tracking general trends on issues, including the U.S. election.
According to the report, the data collected by the systems could not be reviewed. However, four Beijing-based people involved in the direct government public opinion analysis on the issue have been spoken to. This explains separate software systems that automatically collect Facebook and Twitter data and store it in real time on local Chinese servers.
Accordingly, Twitter and Facebook are said to prohibit automatic data collection on their services without prior permission. Twitter’s policy also explicitly prohibits developers from collecting data used to understand a user’s political membership or ethnic and racial origin.
Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said, referring to the company’s Application Programming Interface (API), which allows developers to retrieve public data from the platform, among others:
Our API provides real-time access to public data and Tweets only, not private information. In accordance with our developer policy and terms, we prohibit the use of our API for surveillance purposes.
China’s systems for analyzing local public opinion online are said to be a powerful but largely unseen pillar of President Xi Jinping’s program to modernize China’s propaganda apparatus and maintain control over the Internet. Extensive data collection and monitoring efforts give public opinion to authorities in a country that does not hold public elections or allow independent media.
Of course, it should be noted that the services also provide increasing technical oversight for China’s censorship apparatus, and most systems include alarm functions designed to alert authorities and police to negative content in real time. However, it should be noted that it is an important part of the policy of public opinion in favor of the government.
The full scope of the Chinese government’s public monitoring industry is not yet known. However, there are some estimates of its size. In 2014, for example, the state-backed China Daily newspaper said more than 2 million people worked as public analysts. In 2018, another official publication, the People’s Daily, said the government’s online opinion analysis industry was worth “tens of billions of yuan” equivalent to billions of dollars and was growing at 50 percent a year.
No one can predict where it’s going to lead yet. But we know that many states have similar practices and that it is evident with the evidence. In fact, Edward Snowden, an American computer expert, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former National Security Agency (NSA) employee, has now sought refuge in Russia as the man who initiated the leaks that revealed the operational details of global surveillance devices run by the NSA. You can also watch the Snowden film about this subject, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to learn more.