Information Warfare: Chinese Software Supports Subtle Censorship

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December 8, 2016: In one area of military technology China has taken the lead and that is the development and employment of Internet censorship software and techniques. The latest feature is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) software to analyze all discussions on the network, in real time, and make subtle (largely undetectable) changes in certain words or phrases. This worked best in large chat group discussions by people the government considered potentially dangerous (evolving into organized opposition). The Chinese software ignores discussions between individuals or among small groups and automatically censors, logs and reports the most dangerous ones that experience has shown are typically large groups.

China began by simply procuring commercial Internet monitoring software from Western suppliers. This Internet monitoring software enabled a corporation or government agency to search all Internet traffic in their network (which might have millions of users) and filter all traffic (that was readable) for certain words or phrases. If something was not in plaintext, the monitoring software could identify what kind of data it was (encrypted, compressed, music or video, or whatever). The system also kept a record of which users were on the Internet, when, and with what type of data.

The monitoring effort was no secret to Chinese users who learned to be careful with what they said and how they said it. But the monitoring effort did provide a real-time report on what most upscale Internet users were talking about and what their attitudes were. Occasionally there would be some useful military information from a sloppy plotters. These systems have long been available from several other vendors who sell such stuff to governments and large corporations. Users tend to be quiet about what they are doing in this department. Depending on the secrecy and counter-intelligence laws in a country, it is usually not illegal to use this kind of Internet monitoring software. Many, if not most, nations in the Middle East use an Internet monitoring system similar to the one China developed into a much more formidable tool.

This censorship is another aspect of that it considers essential media manipulation. This effort employs millions of full time and part time personnel who, since the 1990s, have concentrated more on the Internet and less on the more traditional media (print, TV, radio). Over a decade ago the rulers of China (which remains a communist police state) noted that they were losing control of their media, which had long been a key component of maintaining a dictatorship. The effort to regain the pre-Internet media monopoly has not been going well and until recently received little official notice.

The recent criticism concentrated on failures to keep the traditional mass media (radio, TV, newspapers) in line. This is not unexpected because the massive efforts to censor the Internet have only been partially successful and the disturbing (to the Communist Chinese Party that rules China) new ideas that began spreading in the Internet have spread to the traditional mass media, despite the fact that most media personnel in China are government employees.

You could see this crises coming. In 2013 China revealed the number of people involved in Internet censorship operations: two million. This operation is called Golden Shield (or “Great Firewall of China” in the West) and it’s a huge information control system that has been under construction for a decade. Before the new revelations, Golden Shield was believed to have at least 40,000 full time Ministry of Public Security employees dedicated to monitoring and censoring Internet use throughout the country. This was done using specialized hardware and software and lots of paid and volunteer censors. These “irregulars” were known to be numerous but it was difficult to get an accurate estimate. Now the government revealed that irregulars bring the total Internet censorship manpower up to over two million. This is for keeping over 700 million Chinese Internet users (52 percent of the population) under control.

Several billion dollars has been spent on Golden Shield so far. While the Great Firewall cannot stop someone expert at how the Internet works, it does greatly restrict the other 90 percent of Internet users. And it provides a lot of information about what is going on inside all that Internet traffic. Year by year the Golden Shield operators learned what worked (to control news) and what didn't. Not only can Golden Shield keep news from getting out of a part of China but it can greatly limit how much contradictory (to the government version) news gets into all of China. Most of those Internet censors are occupied with monitoring new material showing up, especially via Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and blocking anything that disputes the official government line.

In 2011 China created a new organization to handle just Internet censorship. Called the State Internet Information Office, it consolidated all Internet censorship activity. This was done, in part, to halt the fragmentation of Internet censorship activity. This was happening because over a dozen government agencies engage in censorship (of films, TV, radio, newspapers, books, advertising, text books, and so on). Most of these agencies have expanded their efforts to include similar material that shows up on the Internet. This was leading to turf wars or Internet sites getting an okay from one censorship authority and a shutdown notice from another. This sort of activity is typical of government bureaucracies, no matter where they are.

China has also created more laws for “misbehavior” on the Internet. This means it is easier to prosecute anyone (in China) who says anything on the Internet the government does not like. Several successful Internet based commentators have since been because of the new rules. The Internet censors have tools to measure how popular Internet based commentators are and how many people they are reaching. Commentators on Weibo (a blogging app) are particularly vulnerable, especially if they have a lot of followers. Twitter has long been banned inside China. Weibo is considered too popular to shut down but not immune from increased censorship efforts.

Meanwhile, Internet security companies outside China are discovering, documenting, and publicizing more and more Chinese hacker groups and the large campaigns these groups wage on the rest of the world. China denies everything and criticizes its censors for not doing enough. Now, with better software the censors can do more with fewer people.

 

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