by Lisa Peryman

Big Brother open for business

As China braces itself for the possibility of an omnipotent digital dystopia — a credit rating system aimed at reducing the resources, choices and activities of every citizen to a single trustability score — one Chinese newspaper has revealed a Big Data menace already underway. For a small fee, anyone in China can invade your private data sphere.

For as little as $100 (700 yuan), journalists in China conducting an experiment found they were able to access co-workers’ savings account details, real estate holdings, Internet cafe browsing histories and even their real-time locations using data trackers who advertise freely online.

Offering their services via Internet-based platforms that include China’s WeChat and QQ instant messaging apps, the country’s massive Weibo social media site and Taobao e-commerce platform, data peddlers are able to hawk a jaw-dropping array of information about anyone in exchange for money, no questions asked.

When reporters Rao Lidong and Li Ling of Southern Metropolis Daily — a popular newspaper in South China’s Guangdong province known for its investigative reporting — contacted a sample of the hundreds of providers that offer such tracking services online, they were astonished at how much information they could obtain about colleagues (who had consented to the experiment) using just a telephone or ID number.

Within 30 minutes to 48 hours, depending on the type of information tracked, Lidong and Ling were furnished with intelligence ranging from an image, map and GPS coordinates of a co-worker’s whereabouts to a comprehensive log of hotel bookings spanning years for another colleague (who they stayed with would have cost an additional fee).

After giving one tracker billed as an “ID super-tracking service” the ID number of a colleague, Lidong and Ling received two Excel files 24 hours later providing ID super-tracking data across nine categories — including hotel stays, visits to Internet cafes, places of both permanent and temporary residence, bank accounts, driving records (including infractions), motor vehicle registration, airline flights and train journeys. The reporters revealed that their colleague was able to confirm afterwards that the information given to them was “completely accurate”.

One file containing basic personal information matched the colleague’s government-issued household registration and the photograph from their personal ID card. The sensitivity of this information suggests it most likely came from national police and government databases, as well as banks and mobile carriers. The U.S.-based SupChina (as in What’s Up, China?) news outlet writes:

Owing perhaps to censorship guidelines, the Southern Metropolis Daily report did not draw out the broader implications of its findings  —  that either government and police insiders are routinely selling access to a treasure trove of personal information, or that national databases are vulnerable to outside hacking. [See: Cashing in on dystopia]

Speaking to CBC News, Ronald Deibert, of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto — a group which studies the impacts of information technology on human and personal rights around the world — said his lab had found “various hidden means of censorship and surveillance” in popular apps like WeChat, which permits its users (practically everyone online in China) to make financial transactions. Chinese students studying abroad are also subject to the censoring filters and controls the app uses, said Deibert. [See: Big Brother collecting big data — and in China, it’s all for sale]

While Big Data surveillance is an issue many countries are grappling with, “big-data systems in democracies are not designed for social control” but “China’s explicitly would be,” notes The Economist in “China invents the digital totalitarian state”. The problem is rule of law or lack of it. Writes The Economist:

In democracies, laws limit what companies may do with it and the extent to which governments can get their hands on it. Such protections are imperfect everywhere. But in China they do not exist. The national-security law and the new cyber-security law give the government unrestricted access to almost all personal data. Civil-liberty advocates who might protest are increasingly in jail. And, according to America’s Congressional Research Service, companies that hold data, such as Alibaba, Baidu (China’s largest search engine) and Tencent (which runs a popular social-messaging app) routinely obey government demands for data.

As Chinese authorities explore the feasibility of implementing a new “social credit” rating system that would give every citizen a grade based on their social, financial, political and legal standing, the larger message of the Southern Metropolis Daily exposé suggests such an undertaking may result more in Big Confusion than Big Brother supremacy. “The porous and fragmented nature of China’s institutions” are unlikely to secure a system of digital social control says SupChina. It continues:

One possible alternative, hardly less frightening, to a centralized and devilishly efficient social credit system is the emergence of a vast “flesh search” universe in which the unspoken rule is a cash-fueled information free-for-all. Those who wish to investigate their enemies and competitors will find a wealth of services promising access. And those with the requisite connections, political privilege or other resources will find eager agents ready to sanitize, glamorize and otherwise doctor their social credit profiles. [See: Cashing in on dystopia]

Already, the country’s proliferation of data trackers — their results currently more unreliable, if not outright fraudulent than they are on target (despite the eerie accuracy obtained by the Southern Metropolis Daily investigation) — point to the ways in which bids for control in a digital reality, without legal and political protections, are prone to chaos.

For an in-depth recap of the Southern Metropolis Daily report, see: Personal data for sale.

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